Waterville teachers to leave union

Some Waterville educators are backing away from state and national labor unions to distance themselves from the groups’ broader political agendas and deal more directly with local school district officials.

To coordinate this change, teachers are working with the Northwest Professional Educators Association (NWPE) to form their “local only” group.

Cindy Omlin, executive director of NWPE, spells out the advantages of a local only teacher association.

“With a local only association, teachers are not polarized along political lines. Teachers can contribute to the dialogue about local issues without fear of politically offending their union representative,” Omlin said, also explaining that this action increases staff unity and can lead to higher teacher salaries, since the school district is not expending resources on managing a cumbersome contract negotiated by union middlemen with political agendas.

“In Washington, teachers pay nearly $1,000 or more annually for union dues. Some have estimated that a large majority of the dues are used to advance issues that are not related to workplace representation or education,” Omlin said.

“This is about personal principles and integrity,” said Dan Lopez, Spanish teacher and migrant director for the Waterville School District. “This is the right thing to do.”

Lopez said teachers plan to form a “local only” teacher association that’s free of partisan politics, labor union tactics and the high expenses of union membership dues.

Formation of the local group comes as Waterville teachers question where unions spend their money, how they interact with local administrators and what they say is the lack of concern expressed for kids in most union dealings.

“It often feels like we’re headed in different directions,” said Lopez. “This is a situation that’s been eating at us (teachers) for years.”

Seventeen of the district’s 20 teachers resigned recently from the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state’s leading teacher union, and will petition soon to end their affiliation with the organization.

Plans call for a state-conducted vote among local teachers to end partnership with the WEA. That balloting, conducted by the state Public Employment Relations Commission, must take place in the 90 days before the teachers’ contract with the WEA ends in August.

Lopez said ending union affiliation would free teachers to enlist with Northwest Professional Educators (NWPE), a non-union, nonpartisan association that serves 1,300 educators in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

With support from NWPE, teachers would then form their own local bargaining unit to negotiate wages and benefits directly with local administrators. NWPE could provide legal services to guide local teachers, but would not take part in actual negotiations.

For third-grade teacher Justin Grillo, a key element in a smooth negotiation process is trust between parties.

“We’ve got good administrators now who have a high degree of trust, who have been here a long time and are well-respected,” he said. “We felt that sometimes the union wasn’t helping build trust, but just the opposite.

If approved, the vote this summer would make Waterville’s school staff the third in the state to create a local, teacher-represented association. Districts in Sprague and St. John also have such bargaining units.

“The decline of unions is a growing movement across the country,” said Omlin. “More and more teachers are hoping to focus on local issues—on issues vital to their schools and communities—without the union ‘middleman’ or the overlay of a national political agenda.”

Forming a local teacher association “provides more freedom and respect for teachers,” said Omlin. “It puts their careers in their own hands.”