Two weeks in Alabama

OSEA members Alma Medrano and Marisa Rowden table, with two young helpers at a school supply giveaway in the Norwood neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama.
OSEA members Alma Medrano and Marisa Rowden table, with two young helpers at a school supply giveaway in the Norwood neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. (Photos courtesy of OSEA)

OSEA members say volunteering in the Deep South brings home how precious union rights are

Nineteen Oregonians went to Alabama this summer to help their union. They’re members and staff of Oregon School Employees Association — an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And they say volunteering for AFT Alabama makes them appreciate union rights that other Oregonians might take for granted.

Nice To Have YouAlabama is a right-to-work state — a state law makes union dues strictly voluntary (and union bank accounts puny). And state and local government workers have virtually no collective bargaining rights in Alabama: Public employees can join unions, but their employers don’t have to recognize or bargain with them. Public employee strikes are illegal. There are no union contracts at school districts. Without contracts, there’s no exclusive jurisdiction, either: AFT-Alabama competes for members with the older, more established Alabama Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA). AFT-Alabama has about 3,000 members.

“We don’t collectively bargain; we collectively beg,” jokes Jo Awtry, AFT’s national representative for Alabama.

We take a lot for granted in Oregon, like that we can have a contract, and our employer has to stick by the contract. They don’t have that here.” — retired OSEA member Susan Hardy

What she means is that Alabama unions, just like anyone else, can meet and confer with decision-makers to plead for better budgets and compensation. But even that has limits: A 2010 state law banned public employer payroll deductions for any organization (such as a union) if any of the dues are used for a political purpose. That’s a law that anti-union forces in Oregon tried and failed to pass as a ballot measure in 1998, 2000 and 2008.

Good advice for all occasions: At a park and boardwalk near Mobile, Alabama.
Good advice for all occasions: At a park and boardwalk near Mobile, Alabama.

So in Alabama, AFT practices other models of the collective. Like collective buying: partnering with vision and dental groups to offer reduced-price benefits. And collective action: Talking to school bus drivers in Mobile, where the school year started Aug. 10, OSEA members identified the lack of bus air conditioning as a top concern. That may lay the ground for a public campaign.

“We don’t leave our dogs or kids in the car,” said OSEA member Mitzi Hurt, “but it’s okay to leave a bus driver [in a hot school bus] for 20 minutes while they’re waiting?”

[Volunteering in Alabama] makes me more grateful for what I do have with a contract and collective bargaining in Oregon,” said Hurt, who works as a special ed teacher for Centennial School District.

OSEA member Kathy Wiebke shows cards for the first two members she signed up in Mobile.
OSEA member Kathy Wiebke shows cards for the first two members she signed up in Mobile.

Hurt was on the second of two teams OSEA sent to Alabama this year for two-week stints. The first arrived July 25 in Birmingham, the second a week later in Mobile. They came to work. In school bus yards, school break rooms and parking lots, OSEA volunteers handed out popsicles, cold water, and information about joining the union. They helped teachers set up classrooms. They put together mailings and conducted phone banks. And above all they talked to school employees — teachers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, custodians and bus drivers — surveying what’s important to them, and identifying potential leaders.

I feel like people are grateful that we came all this way to help out,” said OSEA staff organizer Elissa Edge, who led the expedition.

The second team wrapped up Aug. 15. Four OSEA members then headed to Louisiana for two more weeks of volunteering. Besides the OSEA teams, individual AFT members from around the country also took part in the campaign, which is an annual effort by AFT in the South. This year, volunteers also went to New Mexico and Texas. AFT pays the cost of transportation and lodging, reimburses members up to $65 per day for meals and incidentals, and provides training.

This is the fifth year OSEA has taken part in the campaign, and many of the volunteers are repeat travelers. Edge and others from OSEA say the effort doesn’t just help the Alabamans: It’s a rewarding experience for the volunteers as well.

“People are really nice to us, everywhere we go,” says retired Lane County Head Start worker Susan Hardy, a four-time volunteer.

Volunteers also form friendships, and strengthen their own commitment and awareness.

“We take a lot for granted in Oregon,” Hardy said, “like that we can have a contract, and our employer has to stick by the contract. They don’t have that here.”

OSEA members Stacy Yelton and Windy Wiebke volunteer alongside Birmingham AFT President Richard Franklin and his family in the Norwood neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. AFT and the local neighborhood association co-sponsored the event, which also included activities for kids.
OSEA members Stacy Yelton and Windy Wiebke volunteer alongside Birmingham AFT President Richard Franklin and his family at a school supply giveaway in the Norwood neighborhood of Birmingham. AFT and the local neighborhood association co-sponsored the event, which also included activities for kids.

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