Melting a Mountain of Ice

August 25, 2014

When speaking with labor groups, Paul Wellstone loved quoting Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist in the 1840s. At a time when neither political party would take a firm stand on slavery, Wendell would argue that, "slavery is a moral outrage, it should be abolished." Paul would tell the story of the time Phillips finished speaking and a friend came up to him saying, "Wendell, why are you so on fire?" And Wendell responded, "I'm on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt."

Paul would continue, “Well, brothers and sisters, we have mountains of ice before us to melt; and we will do it in the spirit of solidarity.”

Mountains of ice, indeed.

In the past ten years, we’ve passionately built that spirit of solidarity and kept our movement on fire with our union brothers and sisters.

One of our most enduring union partnerships is with the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), a union of over 110,000 pre-K-12 teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, and retirees. For 150 years, MTA has fought vigorously for its members. They have raised educators from poverty wages just 30 years ago into the middle class, and strengthened the profession along the way.

But today, teachers and their unions face a new barrage of critical challenges: a growing achievement gap, economic disparity, attacks on unions, a shrinking middle class.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Public education is at the cornerstone of our democracy. Conservatives attack it because schools are part of our sense of community, our sense of togetherness and responsibility to do right and care for one another collectively. Good schools are the difference between a world where “we all do better when we all do better” instead of a community that says, “you’re on your own.”

Big questions and huge stakes require bold new approaches.

They require expanding the role of unions beyond protecting members and ensuring decent wages and benefits – they require winning enduring public policy changes, the Wellstone Way.

MTA has taken up the challenge, and thanks to its members, its leadership, and a partnership with Wellstone Action, it is becoming a national example for what it means to be an organizing union.

We started working with MTA eight years ago, persistently and tirelessly partnering with them at every level. Together, we’re making MTA a grassroots, member-led organization, where educators are not only the voice for public education in the state but the drivers of public policy that does right by educators, kids, and communities.

As Paul Toner, a middle-school teacher turned labor leader, and the outgoing President of  MTA for the past four years puts it, “We’ve transformed MTA beyond an organization focused on immediate contract issues, to a union of organized professional educators who are leaders and advocates for teacher quality, and for the public policy that will have the biggest impact on our kids’ future.”

And Wellstone is a vital partner for this transformation. “Wellstone gives us the confidence to have our voice heard. Our partnership has been critical to move our agenda forward with conviction, and for us to grow as an organization.”  

This kind of transformation doesn’t happen because of a single training, or even a series of strategic planning sessions. It happens because of a long-term partnership, built on trust, and grounded in the Wellstone Triangle. It takes tenacity, and the knowledge that organizational change only happens with buy-in at every level. We led deep one-on-one conversations with the MTA leadership team, and convened strategic planning sessions with the board. We worked with the staff around best practices of organizing and helped develop models for building member voice and power in schools. We led leadership trainings for MTA’s locals to become more powerful and effective change organizations. The partnership is exhaustive, comprehensive, and a powerful force for change.

On the office wall of George Luse, MTA’s Training and Learning Specialist, there’s a sign that reads, “We train members in the attitudes, skills, and knowledge to build power to influence decisions on the things they care about.” And for George, this is happening because of Wellstone, “Wellstone provides the structure, the roadmap, that allows us to grow deep connections with our members, so we can build that power.”

As Director of Grassroots Campaigns, it is Jo Ann Fitzgerald’s job to help members get engaged with the political process and take action on issues that matter to them and their students: issues like Common Core, early childhood education, state testing, and additional revenue for schools.

“Wellstone has been critically involved with our grassroots work for years, from working on strategic direction with the board, to training at our summer leadership conference, to working with me and my coordinators to build a grassroots movement.” Says Jo Ann, “It has become a way of life for us at MTA: every time we’re starting a campaign, or reach a decision point, we always think about what we’ve learned from Wellstone. The Wellstone Way has become a constant in our frame of mind.”

This is a Massachusetts story, but we are taking this fight across the country from

Massachusetts to Nevada, and California to Michigan. With our partners, we’re taking on conservative attacks against education, and we’re winning.

Put another way? We’re on fire.

Editor’s note: In the time since this profile was written, the members of MTA have elected new leaders. Their commitment to a democratic union, and a strong public education system, remains as steadfast as ever.