Membership engagement has become a top priority for the Palmdale Elementary Teachers Association this year, as the union works to become even stronger through greater participation levels and better communication. A combination of PETA-sponsored workshops, social activities, organizing efforts, community outreach and regular member input is making that goal happen.
PETA President Kathy Vanderzee assumed office in July after serving as bargaining chair and in other association roles. Although PETA was in good shape when she took over, she says, she wants to make it stronger by moving away from a “service model” construct where some members pay their dues in exchange for representation and other benefits, but don’t realize that their participation and involvement are key to true union effectiveness.
Over the years, membership engagement has ebbed and flowed depending on the latest bargaining crisis, election or other organizing effort. Participation reached an all-time high in 2013, when a strong PETA election effort flipped the school board to a more teacher-supportive majority, and resulted in a shakeup in district administration. But after that victory, participation declined and fewer members came to association rep councils and other committee meetings.
“I want to get away from the ‘ramp up, reach your goal, ramp down’ cycle that gets us starting nearly from scratch when we try and bring members in to support bargaining and other efforts,” Vanderzee says.
This year, a new Membership Engagement/Organizing Committee surveyed PETA members to see how they felt about their union, what their values are, what their expectations of PETA are, and what could be improved. The committee found that members value family above all else, then work, and that they want advocacy and support from their union. Surprisingly, union leadership concern about member involvement turned out to be a two-way street: Members said they want to feel more involved and more connected to their union.
Vanderzee credits her predecessors for laying the groundwork for many of her efforts to build those connections. This year, PETA recruited new members at a three-day orientation, and Vanderzee worked with the school district’s new teacher coordinator to make sure she is a part of any orientation for potential members hired throughout the year. “We want people to hit the ground running with a connection to PETA,” she says.
PETA also decided to provide more opportunities for members to see the value of their union and to get together, by offering association-sponsored workshops. With assistance from NEA, they held what proved to be a very popular workshop on student loan forgiveness, which PETA expanded to invite other CTA locals in the surrounding High Desert area. Vanderzee says she’s planning to bring in CalSTRS representatives to hold a retirement workshop in the spring.
She says she always makes it clear when something is an association-sponsored event, in most cases not open to the public, and that participants’ membership and dues support is helping make it all happen. She and other PETA leaders use iPads at workshops, school visits and other events, where members or potential members can check their PETA/CTA/NEA information and update it if needed.
While many CTA locals have organizing committees, which often focus around bargaining crises, and membership committees, which largely focus on member recruitment, PETA took the innovative step of combining the two into the Membership Engagement/Organizing Committee. Vanderzee wants members to view member engagement as every bit as important as the bargaining team.
“Bargaining is hugely important,” she says, “but the truth is you can have the best bargaining team, the strongest spokespeople, the best budget numbers crunchers in the world, but they’re not going to get the results they should without good organizing and strong membership engagement.”
PETA’ s Membership Engagement Organizers were “on fire” with ideas after attending sessions on member benefits and more at the fall CTA High Desert Service Center conference, and have scheduled at least one member engagement project per month.
In November and December, PETA participated in a local Stuff-A-Bus toy drive, resulting in nearly 300 member-given toys going to needy community children. The effort boosted PETA’s visibility in the community (PETA was recognized as a charitable partner in the effort, and its logo appeared on the side of the bus) and gave members a different and positive way to participate in an association effort. In the same spirit, PETA supplied their site representatives with holiday cards that they could personalize and deliver to their colleagues. The union is also planning a classic movie night, beer and wine tastings, casino nights, baseball outings, and other fun social events.
“We’re looking to strengthen connections,” says Vanderzee. “Many of our members are already active in the community. We’re looking to use those connections to help build or own.”
PETA has always had strong membership numbers (over 95 percent of the bargaining unit belong to the union), and its members have nearly always risen to the challenge when needed to support bargaining or other efforts. But it’s everyone’s hope that these new efforts to truly engage members will make it an even stronger, more effective and more vibrant union.
“I’m really excited for our future,” says Vanderzee. “It’s a great time to be a PETA member and to get involved.”