Forty years ago, a Corpus Christi ISD middle school teacher named John Cole helped galvanize a few dozen of his peers around the idea that a union could improve not only their plight as low-paid educators, but also the quality of education for the kids they served. The district at the time had an organization for school employees, but Cole and others weren't satisfied with the results it was getting to improve the lives of educators and students.
Building a union to represent the employees was a rough road, for sure, since Texas is a right-to-work state with no collective bargaining for public employees to get a contract, and no ability to strike under law — something that the traditional unions elsewhere used as their bedrock for organizing new members. Nevertheless, Cole and crew promoted the vision that an organized group of employees could improve the schools and new members quickly flocked to the fledgling union — the Corpus Christi Federation of Teachers, which elected Cole as its first president.
Cole knew how to agitate the school district if needed to fight for teachers' rights, but he also understood that without the ability to negotiate a contract the union needed to develop an actual working relationship with district administrators to get things done.
In 1979 the union was successful in implementing a system of elected consultation, in which school employees elect an organization to represent them in negotiations with the district over pay and working conditions. While not the same as a binding contract from collective bargaining, the system let school employees work as one voice for school employees to resolve specific issues.
Subsequent presidents, Linda Bridges and Ray McMurrey, continued to forge new collaborations with the district over the years with innovative programs like teacher mentoring, union-sponsored professional development, a focus on National Board Certification for teachers, and most important, pushing for more resources for schools that need them the most.
Today the union (now named Corpus Christi AFT) is 2,000 members strong, and we seek to carry on the local tradition of collaboration with Corpus Christi ISD and the other districts with employees we represent (Calallen ISD, Flour Bluff ISD, Gregory-Portland ISD, Tuloso-Midway ISD, and West Oso ISD).
Our union, which is made up of teachers, paraprofessionals and support personnel members, strives to:
Equip all people to know and exercise their economic, social, educational and cultural capacity.
Create an environment for the community where the electorate will feel empowered to hold the officials accountable for their actions.
Maintain high-quality teaching staff for the sake of students and create optimal learning environments for students and educators.
Promote curriculum designed around community expectations and quality educator input that meets all students where they are and prepares them for success.
In particular, we want to focus on the implementation of Community Schools initiatives to support struggling campuses. This "all hands on deck" approach pulls together parents, faculty and staff, and community partners in designing and implementing their own, homegrown plan for improving their neighborhood school, turning it into a community hub for coordinated educational, health, and social services to students and their families.
We also must remain true to our union roots and continue to push our districts to improve, even if that means an occasional conflict with administrators. With low pay, long hours and a taxing working environment still plagued by an overemphasis on testing, our teachers are suffering not only from burnout, but also from actual physical ailments related to the stress. And we witness students whose needs — physical, emotional and educational — are being neglected as well. Our union will fight for better pay and treatment for school staff and better educational opportunity for our children, and we'll use every medium available to have our collective voice heard. We will not be silenced or intimidated in this pursuit. And we'll keep close to our hearts the words of our former president — the late Linda Bridges — on why we are so persistent in our advocacy: "Our kids are worth it."
Moving forward for the next 40 years, we want our movement to transform all our schools into places that inspire our children to live with passion, hope and triumph. We believe this is what our community wants too. We remain union proud and union strong!
Nancy Vera is the president of the Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers, which is celebrating 40 years in the Coastal Bend. She also is a Caller-Times Hispanic Advisory Committee member.