Union Born, Union Proud

My dad died nearly twenty years ago. He was only 68. He had retired from the Providence Public Schools about a year earlier, expecting the cliched retirement of traveling the country in a
used Winnebago with my mom. Unfortunately, that well-earned retirement never really happened. Life is grossly unfair that way. But, despite his untimely death, his life had a profound impact on thousands of students and on me.

One of my first memories of my dad was being on strike with him. I was four and a half years old and the Providence Teachers Union went on strike. Apparently my father thought this was an excellent teachable moment (or maybe he just could not afford the babysitter for the duration of the three-week strike). He held me in one arm and a picket sign in the other.

I vaguely remember singing union songs and chanting. I had no idea what we were doing, but the song, “Joe Hill” is deeply rooted in my brain. Even now, when I play that song, I feel the strength of that march. I guess one might say that I was born union proud.

"He held me in one arm and a picket sign in the other. I vaguely remember singing union songs."

Now, I am the president of my small local. My sense of pride in union has not waned, but it has changed. I usually don’t feel the need to chant and sing about justice. In my role as president, I get to see the incredible things that teachers do. They are not great because they are members of a union. They are great because of their passion for their subject and their dedication to their students. For most of them, union membership is not even something they pay much attention to, except at contract time, of course.

However, this nonchalance about membership is because of their membership. These teachers, who don’t really think much about their union, are able to have a livable wage, decent working conditions, reasonable class sizes, and a good benefit package because we are in this together.

Our union enables us to be the teachers we want to be without the same kinds of worries that my dad had back in 1969. He was a dedicated teacher, too. But we were dirt poor. He earned about $8,000 per year and supported six kids.

I’m proud to be the president of my local because I know that by being united, teachers can have the impact they want, without the fear and worry about groceries. In the summers, my dad worked in a factory to help make ends meet. After school, he worked in a department store three days a week.

Most of us have the luxury of creating new materials, contemplating new methods of instruction, planning for tomorrow or next year; in essence, being the best teachers we can be. I’m proud to be union because it lets me be the teacher my father always dreamed I would be. ■

Barbara Wilmot is the president of the Exeter-West Greenwich Teachers