In Lee County, sweet success

Our unions can build membership and strength even in the face of adversity

How strong are our unions? Strong enough to withstand the great storm of Covid and emerge bigger and better than before.

In Lee County, one number makes that point. The Teachers Association of Lee County (TALC) and the Support Personnel Association of Lee County (SPALC) have added more than 900 members over the past year, achieving the highest membership growth numbers in the state for the period from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021. Together, the two unions have nearly 5,000 members.

To get a better picture of what’s behind the 900-plus sign-ups, FEA spoke recently with TALC President Kevin Daly, SPALC President Jamie Michael, Island Coast Member Benefits Specialist Lois Dubay and Latonya Starks, a member organizer and fourth-grade teacher.

Their recipe for success includes an extremely successful member organizer program, great data, a healthy union culture, hard work and heart.

This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of The Advocate, the official publication of the Florida Education Association.

Finding that ‘spark’

Lee’s member organizer program, which employs members specifically to reach out to potential members and leaders, got underway in the summer of 2020 as the pandemic continued. TALC President Kevin Daly says Lois Dubay ended up “leading the charge” to connect with educators, and she pulled together a small team of organizers chosen for their knowledge of the district and local schools.

Latonya Starks, whom Lois calls “dynamite,” was part of the program from the start. When Latonya speaks, “she speaks from the heart,” Lois said. “I think of lot of people resonate with that.”

Latonya’s approach is to always give potential members “the honest and real,” whether she’s connecting by text, email or in person. She realized early on that a lot of organizing is plain about “educating people and helping them understand what it is that our union is, because sometimes people have a sort of distorted view based on what they hear in social media and from politicians.”

Latonya is centered on tapping “what sparks people,” and finds that many are moved by the idea of having a voice, of joining with others to multiply their power to create positive change. “I explained to people, I didn’t join my union to keep out of trouble or whatever like that. I want the things that are important to me in the classroom. When I see my students needing something or when I see things that could be changed and be better for all of us — myself, my students — I want to be a voice in what I want to have.”

And when Latonya comes back to check on people again and again, she will tell you that it’s because she honestly cares. That kind of witness to the value of union wins hearts.

For example, there was a music teacher who was new to school last fall and because of Covid protocols had to push a cart from room to room to teach, causing some to become impatient with the time that took. “She came from another county and throughout the whole school year, I checked in with her. She’s a brand-new teacher. I would just offer any kind of support that I could offer,” Latonya said. Throughout the year, they talked after school about the new teacher’s concerns and what she’d like to see, but she wasn’t interested in joining the union. She saw it as a defense organization, and said as a music teacher she didn’t need that. Latonya pointed out that current and previous FEA leaders are music teachers. And she kept coming back.

“The last day of school, I stopped by to see if she needed help getting anything put away because she had all these ukuleles that she had to de-string and, oh, she had a big job. So I was just checking in to see if she needed anything. She was like, well, no, I’m in good shape. But come on and sit down next to me and help me get signed up for my union.” Latonya gives a wide smile. “So it was just, like, perfect.”

Getting the pieces in place

TALC President Kevin saw great opportunity in the member organizer program from the FEA initiative’s beginning in spring 2020. It would be one more way to build the strength of Lee unions even as everyone grappled with the challenges of the pandemic. SPALC President Jamie noted, “During Covid it has been very difficult because you couldn’t get out to the schools or the locations. So we’re trying new things.” She added, “The people who are working on it are working very hard.”

Early in the pandemic, one of the first things Lois did was build digital sign-up forms for TALC and SPALC, so that new members no longer had to submit paper forms. “I believe at least 90 percent of our membership is due to that electronic form of signing up, because you can sign up right from your phone, from right at your fingertips,” she said.

Both Kevin and Lois repeatedly emphasized the importance of good data to a member organizing program or any other effort to build membership and strength. Since the Lee unions keep updated contact information for the district, Lois was able to sit down in spring 2020 and start sending off emails with links to the newly created forms. She was overwhelmed at the initial response to her emails containing updates from the local associations — she was providing information that educators were desperate to get during Covid. And some of those educators were becoming members. Lois estimates that out of every 100 emails she sent, 10 to 20 garnered a response.

The pandemic, she said, “made us have to think outside the box, not just keep it status quo. You know, this wasn’t what we were doing. It was something new that we had to learn.”

By July 2020, the Lee unions had assembled their member-organizer team, and organizers were texting, emailing, calling and talking in person with fellow teachers and education staff professionals. Between late June 2020 and the start of school that year, almost 200 new members signed up. “I never would have guessed that in a million years that we would have had such success,” Lois said.

Building a good foundation

Good programs and tools are, of course, just part of building a strong union. TALC President Kevin emphasizes the importance of a union’s culture — both to its members and to its image in the community.

Just as Latonya points out that she didn’t join her union for legal defense, Kevin said he continually emphasizes, “we’re not insurance.” Our unions are about professional development, “about allowing people the opportunities to grow in the areas they want to grow.” They are about community service, such as through shoe and food drives and collections for the Humane Society. “We’re the people that you go to church with, or the people who are in the grocery store. … We’re the people that are in your community,” Kevin said.

“The majority of the teachers out there who have a bigger heart than they have pocketbook, or why else would they do this job? And, you know, they’re naturally giving up time and money and sweat and care. So to build that attitude of organizational culture and community service, honestly I think it fits right in.”

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