West Hartford has a long reputation as a town with great public schools. On Friday night, West Hartford Education Association members gathered together to celebrate what they say plays a large part in the success of West Hartford Public Schools—the strength of their union.
This month marks 50 years since West Hartford teachers selected the West Hartford Education Association (WHEA) as their sole representative in negotiations before the board of education under Connecticut’s recently passed collective bargaining law. The WHEA began as a professional organization of teachers back in the 1920s, but it wasn’t able to have a decisive voice in advocating on behalf of students and teachers until Connecticut teachers gained those bargaining rights.
The WHEA only recently unearthed valuable documents related to the 50-year milestone thanks to Town Historian Tracey Wilson. Wilson, a recently retired West Hartford teacher, was working on another West Hartford history project when she discovered the newspaper clipping documenting West Hartford educators’ selection of the WHEA as their bargaining agent. (Click here to read the WHEA’s first contract.)
Prior to 1965, West Hartford teachers had no say in their working conditions and few rights. In essence, teachers were at the mercy of whatever the board of education offered.
WHEA President Ted Goerner told educators gathered at the Noah Webster House Friday night that, even today, in a so-called “right-to-work” state like Texas, where his brother teaches, educators have no ability to collectively bargain. Goerner contrasted the three-page personal contract that his brother has to sign if he wants a job with the 48-page carefully constructed WHEA contract—a document that reflects the important voice teachers have in a collective bargaining state.
“Unfortunately, unions continue to be under attack,” Wilson said. “We will only have rights if we all continue to work together.”
Wilson said that teachers working together as union members have been able to make significant gains to advance their standing as professionals. As an example, Wilson sited a grievance the WHEA filed on her behalf early in her career that led to the district changing its policy about when it informed teachers if they would have a job for the following school year.
More recently, her school’s administration removed a student from Wilson’s class because the student’s parents claimed Wilson had a “gay agenda.” Through the WHEA, Wilson and other educators came together to form a district LGBTQ Advisory Committee that now supports LGBTQ students and staff members.
Good working conditions for teachers make good learning conditions for students. Wilson said, “I’m so grateful for how the union has helped make the school system a better place to be.”
In addition to the active WHEA teacher members who came out to the 50th anniversary celebration, many retired members attended and shared stories from their years being involved with the union.
Susan Daily, a retired teacher and former WHEA president, told the active teachers, “Stick together. Students come first in our public schools, and we’re all in it for the kids, but you come next.”
Wilson said, “West Hartford teachers make our school district great, and the union makes us strong.”