Editors Note: The Richmond Branch of The Virginia Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (VCORE) has recently published the following statement in response to the first collective bargaining agreement between the Richmond Education Association (REA) and Richmond Public Schools (RPS), which is the first in the state to do so. VCORE’s proposals have much utility across every industry and union for workers in Virginia.

On December 12, 2022, members of the Richmond Education Association (REA) belonging to the teacher’s pay scale bargaining unit met at Thomas Jefferson High School to learn about the tentative agreement reached by the bargaining team in the first round of contract negotiations since the REA became the first school district in Virginia to restore collective bargaining rights in December 2021. For many members present, this was the first in-person, all-member union assembly they had ever attended. For all members though, it was the first time any of them had heard from the negotiation team directly. Frustrations with the lack of communication during the bargaining process, as well as concerns about the lack of time to fully review the tentative agreement, were brought to light as rank-and-file members addressed REA leadership, VEA staff, and members of the negotiation team. Despite the frustrations, something important occurred in this meeting that many rank-and-file members have long called for: direct, participatory democracy and a labor union being run by its membership. 

In the end, the tentative agreement was ratified. Members asked detailed questions about the tentative -agreement and raised issues they thought could arise. They also motioned to extend the meeting to allow for more questions, debated the fairness of the ratification process, and pointed out clear shortcomings of the agreement, all while acknowledging the hard work of the negotiation team. The energy was tense but powerful, passionate and receptive. Yet the possibilities that this ratification meeting made clear, leave us with a few questions:

  1. How might this round of negotiations have been different if our union leadership had allowed for more meetings like this and prioritized organizing members around the contract issues?
  2. How can we make the energy that was present in the Thomas Jefferson High School auditorium that night the normal culture of our union? 

While we can’t change the past, we can learn from it. One member present at the ratification meeting said, “I think if we had more meetings like this, people would feel more a part of REA”. Regular all-member assemblies, organized in accordance with basic democratic norms and procedures, and led by a competent facilitation team, would have resulted in a more efficient ratification meeting and improved member turnout. The meeting also wasn’t the first of its kind; REA used to hold representative assemblies that were open to all members, as defined in the union’s bylaws. One former REA leader described the organization of REA in the past; “Notes would be taken and written or verbal reports would be made by the chairperson of the committee at each Rep meetings and/or at board meetings. The president would make sure to put written reports as needed in the packet for the Rep Assembly meetings. This way the reps could share the information with the members at their buildings as needed.”

 Those present as this first contract was ratified got a glimpse into the potential and power of a union being led from the bottom up. Meetings like the ratification one should be the norm, not a rarity. This serves as the basis of union democracy, and in turn, workers are able to see and strengthen their collective power as one that can fight for better working and learning conditions outside of contract negotiations and during them. If we are to transform our union into the union RPS workers deserve, we need a concrete plan to do so. The program that follows is that plan. We invite all RPS workers to learn and struggle with us as we fight for the union, schools and city we all deserve. 

We are the Richmond chapter of the Virginia Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (VCORE). We are a group of union members committed to transforming the Richmond Education Association (REA) into a fighting labor union for all education workers employed by Richmond Public Schools (RPS). 

We are proposing the following program of reforms because we need a fighting labor union committed to class struggle and social justice. While winning the right to collectively bargain was a major first step – and members of our caucus played a leading role in this campaign – we need to increase our union’s presence in our worksites, rebuild our union’s stagnant membership, sharpen our union’s progressive political priorities, and transform our union’s organizational culture and practice. These reforms are necessary if we are to transform our union into a force capable of winning the schools that Richmond Public School students, employees, and communities deserve. 

We understand that we, the REA members in schools serving our students every day, are the union. To transform our union into a more effective fighting organization will require the initiative, creativity, and steadfastness of ordinary union members. Adopting and implementing this program will be a small but important first step in setting a new course for the REA and our city’s growing labor movement. 

  1. Communications and Membership

In order for ordinary union members to be more involved in our union’s internal affairs, we need to know what’s going on. Furthermore, many members ignore messages sent to their work emails by the central office of the REA or VEA, assuming them to be spam (insurance discounts, travel deals, etc.). When relevant communications are sent, it is done in a top-down fashion, with little space for rigorous dialogue and debate among members. We should not fear disagreement, but welcome it, for it is only through participation in democratic deliberation that a shared strategy and sense of purpose among union members will emerge.

At present, woefully insufficient efforts are made to identify potential workplace leaders, recruit and welcome them into the union, and include them in union governance. New members are not consistently provided with an orientation to the union, thus leaving most REA members in the dark as to who the union leadership is, what they stand for politically, how the union makes decisions, and how they can get more involved in the life of the union. 

In recent years, the Board of Directors – our union’s standing executive body – has not been selected by competitive elections, but by acclamation and presidential appointment. No election calendars are published, no candidate forums are held, and Board election dates are announced last minute. The Board meets infrequently, without all Board members receiving communication and meeting agendas in advance. Board decision-making processes have become bureaucratic and dysfunctional, with little opportunity for member input before Board decisions are made. 

This all comes at a great cost, having severely inhibited our union’s ability to communicate with and mobilize our members, prospective members, and the general public. We believe the REA’s communications system must be rebuilt in the following ways:

  • We must rebuild our membership base and apply for funding from the National Education Association (NEA) to make the REA President a full-time work releaseposition, enabling them to perform leadership duties on behalf of the union. For decades, the REA had a full-time work release president, but this position was lost in recent years due to a decline in union membership.
  • However, not waiting for a full-time work release position to be established, the next REA President should conduct a listening tour of every RPS worksite in order to hear the needs and concerns of all RPS employees. The results of this listening tour should be brought back to the REA, published for the general membership, and serve as the basis for union activities and mobilization. 
  • The REA Board of Directors recently resumed production of the REA’s longstanding newsletterActionline. This is a step in the right direction, but more is needed: the newsletter should have a standing editorial collective, a fixed production schedule, and funding should be provided for it to be printed and mailed to all members. The newsletter editors should be accountable to a communications committee, with input from all other committees and all-round member participation. The contents of this newsletter should also be made available online via an archive to be hosted on the REA website. The newsletter should include a regular editorial from the REA President or Vice President, updates on contract campaigns, as well as news and views on public education and the labor movement.
  • The REA should establish a communications committee tasked with establishing and maintaining a communications platform for members (such as Slack, Element, or Discord); operating and maintaining the REA’s presence on social media (specifically Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram); operating, maintaining, and updating the REA website; and producing, editing, and publishing the REA newsletter. Eventually, this committee could also produce a podcast for members, as many unions nationwide are doing.
  • The REA should convene a new member orientation at least twice per year, ideally at the beginning of each semester. This orientation should communicate to members who the union is, what the union is about, how the union makes decisions, and how members can get involved.
  • The REA should establish protocols for conflict mediation and resolution to be implemented at all levels of the organization.
  • The REA should adopt and publish simplified rules of order for decision-making at all REA meetings, and train members in meeting facilitation skills and parliamentary procedures to ensure the equitable participation of rank and filers in union governance.
  1. Democracy and Member Empowerment 

The REA does not make decisions democratically. Most worksites do not have an elected building representative. Our Assembly of Representatives – supposedly the supreme legislature of our union – has the right to set program and policy, and should be open to the general membership of the union, in accordance with our union by-laws (which most members have never seen!). Yet in practice most REA Representatives are appointed by the President, official Representatives receive inconsistent communication regarding the date, time, and location of Assemblies, and the general membership of the union are neither informed of nor invited to Assemblies.

We propose the following reforms to establish union democracy and empower union members:

  • Transform the system of REA building representatives into a Steward System, which has been used by the strongest unions throughout history. We define a Union Steward as an elected workplace leader responsible for convening regular worksite meetings of union members, advocating for and defending the interests of union members, and enforcing our contract in the workplace.
  • REA members in every school or worksite should be responsible for holding a meeting at the beginning of the year to elect one Union Steward for every fifteen members.
  • Union Stewards will be responsible for convening regular union meetings at their worksite, handling grievances with management, ensuring the enforcement of the union contract, protecting our legal rights as workers, and soliciting member input and participation in union affairs. Before assuming these responsibilities, they will be required to complete a Steward Training approved by the union.
  • Union Stewards must be accountable to and recallable by a majority vote of the members in their worksite at any time, and will be required to attend a monthly district-wide Stewards’ Council
  • The Stewards’ Council will take the place of the Assembly of Representatives as the main legislative body of the union, and will be responsible for setting policy and programmatic priorities for the REA Board. It is imperative that Union Stewards receive orientation training prior to being integrated into the Stewards’ Council, as well as receive ongoing training and support from the REA Collective Bargaining Committee and REA Board of Directors.
  • In addition to Stewards (for whom attendance shall be mandatory), the Stewards’ Council will be open to all rank-and-file REA members.
  1. Open Bargaining

We believe that the collective bargaining process must not take place behind closed doors, as was decided by the REA in the summer of 2022 when members of the negotiating team were forced to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), despite resistance from some members of the bargaining team. Instead, we believe union members and the public must be involved and able to ask questions about the process to the bargaining team. The members of our bargaining team must be widely publicized and accessible to all union members. This not only holds the team accountable to the membership, but builds public support for the union and the bargaining process.

We believe the following principles should be applied to the collective bargaining process: 

  • The REA should establish Contract Action Teams (CATs) in every worksite to ensure the direct participation of REA members in the formulation, negotiation, and adoption of the contract, as other unions have successfully done in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. A CAT will take responsibility for communicating with members at their school to ensure they are fully informed and engaged in the contract negotiation process, and mobilizing members for union-wide actions in support of the contract campaign. Each CAT member should be responsible for no more than 10 members, with assignments based on who people interact with on a daily basis. This could mean recruiting one CAT member for every department, grade level, or wing of the school. The CAT is an important tool to counteract disinformation spread by administration during the contract campaign. The CAT should be in regular communication with their worksite’s Union Stewards.
  • The REA should convene regular listening sessions both virtually and in-person for all RPS employees and the general public to learn about and participate in the collective bargaining process.
  • Collective bargaining must be a transparent and democratic process: this is what we mean by open bargaining. All REA members and the general public should be allowed to observe the proceedings of all contract negotiation sessions during the collective bargaining process for all bargaining units. Even if management refuses to permit open bargaining in the district, union members and the general public can be informed about and engaged with the collective bargaining process through regular print and electronic communications, as well as face-to-face meetings with members of the bargaining team.
  1. Mass Action

The REA has shown itself to be hesitant in mobilizing and relying upon the initiative of rank-and-file union members. When union members want to mobilize their fellow workers against abusive bosses, they are instructed to initiate a grievance procedure. While there is a place for filing grievances – and to be absolutely clear, our union should be selective when taking mass actions to ensure mass participation and majoritarian support – our union cannot be so cautious and conservative that it is perceived by the general membership and prospective future members as “doing nothing” and “basically useless” in the face of injustice and exploitation. 

If we are asking our fellow workers to pay union dues, the union leadership must be prepared to rally the union’s support base in order to defend and advance our interests as education workers. When our coworkers move into action, the union leadership must be willing to join them on the frontlines of struggle by providing guidance and leadership. We need our union leadership to initiate bold mass actions in order to defend and transform Richmond Public Schools.

  1. Union Solidarity and Social Justice

We believe our union must take a stronger stance in solidarity with all oppressed peoples. We recommend the formation of a solidarity committee that organizes and mobilizes our members to support progressive social change, human rights, environmental sustainability, and the defense of all people of color, undocumented people, trans people, and queer people. This includes building connections and solidarity with parents and community members, as well as other local unions and community organizations.

  1. A Legislative Agenda

We know we cannot ignore government as a crucial terrain of struggle, and believe that the REA should adopt an independent stance in relation to all political parties, until a time when a real working people’s party has been established. We believe our union should focus on the following policies, and advocate for all VEA locals to adopt a similar legislative agenda:

On the local level:

  • Take a firm stance against mayoral control of the school district. Defend the people’s right to a democratically elected and accountable school board.
  • Require school board members to hold regular open meetings, both in-person and virtual, with their constituencies.

On the state level:

  • Oppose privatization of public education under the guise of charter schools and “lab schools.”
  • Lobby to repeal Virginia’s “Right to Work (for Less)” laws. Legalize the right to strike for all workers, be they employed in the private or public sector.
  • Organize to end Governor Youngkin’s crusade against queer and trans youth and anti-racist education. Build popular support to teach people’s history.

On the federal level:

  • Lobby to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.
  • Lobby to repeal the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.
  1. Conclusion

In summary, our program to transform the REA and build the union RPS workers deserve consists of the following priorities: 

  • Improve member communication with regards to all union affairs, especially contract negotiations, through our union newsletter, website, and other mediums. 
  • Rebuild our membership base through a recruitment drive and consistent member events.
  • Establish a new style of leadership, in which REA officers “lead by listening” and delegate responsibilities equitably.
  • Democratize union decision-making procedures through clear and consistent communication, transparent elections of union officers at all levels, simplified rules of order, regular membership meetings, and by creating new opportunities for rank and file participation in union governance at all levels. 
  • Develop a new cadre of union leaders through regular member education and organizer training programs.
  • Pursue a progressive political agenda of class struggle and social justice.
  • Organize and coordinate bold, mass actions to defend the rights and dignity of our fellow workers, enforce our contracts, and transform Richmond Public Schools into a public education system that serves the people.

As an RPS employee, we welcome your critical feedback on our proposals for reforming our union. If you are in agreement with this program of change, we encourage you to join the Richmond chapter of VCORE, and vote for our slate in the next REA election. None of these changes will be won easily, and certainly not without the mobilization, commitment, and action of ordinary union members. But in the words of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” We invite you to unite with us in the struggle to build the union RPS workers need, and the school system our communities deserve.

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