Spotlight on Locals: Sheboygan Education Association

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen with Sheboygan Education Association President Rebecca Letter. Rebecca accepted the certificate recognizing the Sheboygan Education Association as a strong local affiliate.

By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President

When I sat down with Sheboygan Education Association President Rebecca Letter, I asked her how Sheboygan’s EA has maintained their strength.  Rebecca said, “I give credit to our continued philosophy of we.”  We, according to Rebecca, is the union leadership and the district administration, working together on behalf of the students in Sheboygan. She cited the history of good relationships between teachers and administration in Sheboygan, and she said that after changes in legislation in 2011, the SEA continued to do what they did well, communicate with administration on behalf of what is best for their students.

The SEA maintains a seat at the table through a Meet and Confer process.  Rebecca discussed the structure that the SEA has had historically and has maintained through changes in legislation. She, as the EA President, meets monthly with both the Superintendent of Schools and the President of the School Board. Additionally, the SEA’s policies chairperson (formerly chief negotiator) along with the assistant policies chair meet monthly with the district’s Human Relations Director. Their professional rights and responsibilities chair,  along with Rebecca and a team of administrative representatives, one from each grade level, also meet once a month. Rebecca pointed out that it is all of these face-to-face exchanges that make it much easier to build and maintain relationships. They are able to avoid pitfalls of a small issue becoming a major issue because it is left unresolved. Rebecca made it clear that SEA leaders and members aren’t afraid to speak up saying, “the SEA is a strong enough union to be honest with administration about the real issues and our needs in our classrooms and school buildings.”

When I asked Rebecca, who is now in her fourth year as the President of the SEA, about how she got involved in her association, she said, “I was asked by someone that I respected to attend an event at the Kettle Moraine Uniserv Council.  At the event, I liked the vibe in the room and all of the positive energy. I was hooked.”

Rebecca pointed out the importance of leadership recruitment and development in your local association.  “Keep an eye out for your members who are passionate about issues — if you have someone who really believes in the importance of professional development, get them involved. We need to tap into our members for their passion and help them to build confidence as leaders on behalf of their students,” Rebecca told me. She pointed out that there are many events and opportunities that happen all across the state where leaders have a chance to invite their members. Rebecca also noted that leadership in your local doesn’t require a title, and some of our strongest, most passionate voices can be our members who may never seek a title.

In our conversation, Rebecca told me, “It is so important to spend time listening to our members and our potential members.”

The Sheboygan Education Association was part of a Summer Organizing Project in 2017. In this work, the SEA took a systematic approach to having conversations with members and potential members and invested time in listening to the issues and the ideas of their colleagues in Sheboygan. Rebecca said, “this feedback is extremely valuable for us as we realize that many of our members had no idea what the SEA was doing.”

Rebecca said that their work in organizing is an important reminder that our members need someone to listen to them. The SEA has been continually reinforcing to both members and potential members that their voice matters and their needs are important. They are working on ways to help engage their colleagues in organizing on the issues they care about and empowering them to make their classrooms and school buildings better for their students.

Rebecca ended our conversation by saying, “In this challenging time, we must remember that we all have a voice, but it is the union that gives you a microphone. Your union is the mechanism to make sure that your voice is heard above all of the background noise.”