Union members look to make difference on White Bear Lake school board

Marge Newmaster (L) and Ellen Fahey

Marge Newmaster (L) and Ellen Fahey

Ellen Fahey and Marge Newmaster, two of three labor-endorsed candidates for White Bear Lake school board, understand the challenges working families face, value public education and appreciate the collective bargaining process.

It’s no coincidence Fahey and Newmaster also are union members.

Minnesota unions have put a focus in recent years on training and equipping members, retirees and community allies with the skills they need to run successfully for public office, believing the best advocates for labor’s priorities – like strong schools, good jobs, fair taxes and collective bargaining – are union members themselves.

Fahey and Newmaster are proving that theory true on the campaign trail this fall.

“My commitment has always been to kids, to education, but also to a union,” said Fahey, who retired in June after 39 years of teaching, including the last 22 in the White Bear Lake Area Schools.

Newmaster, a media specialist who’s worked in the district since 1971, said she “would hate to see happen here what happened in Wisconsin,” referring to Gov. Scott Walker’s move to strip teachers and most other public employees of most collective bargaining rights.

The third labor-endorsed candidate in White Bear Lake, Scott Nelson, also is a member of Education Minnesota.

Kris Fredson, political director for the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said it’s always encouraging to see union members step into the political arena.

“Working families are under attack more, and it’s great to see union members choosing to do something about,” Fredson said. “More and more union members are volunteering, and more and more union members are running for office, whether it’s school board or city council or the state Legislature. And that’s how we’re going to move a working families agenda forward.”

Saint Paul Union AdvocateWhat makes union members good advocates for working families?

• Unique perspectives. In White Bear Lake, the experience of working inside a classroom gives all three labor-endorsed candidates a deep appreciation for the need to keep class sizes small. Fahey taught a middle school science class several years ago with 37 students.

“You can still do your job, but it’s crowded, and there’s no room to give anyone any space,” she said. “We need to work with the Legislature to address school funding so all schools are funded on an equal level.”

Newmaster, meanwhile, pointed to her experience working as a media specialist, helping students access the information they need to plan their life after graduation.

“We really need to provide our kids with a wide variety of experiences so that they’re ready to go on to postsecondary education or begin new jobs,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re connecting with employers, colleges, other training centers to see what their expectations are.”

• Collaborative approach. Newmaster pledged to make the district’s decision-making process more inclusive and to take seriously the input of all stakeholders – students, parents, staff and community members.

“We haven’t had a lot of that lately,” Newmaster said. “We also need to respect everybody’s culture. We can’t just talk about closing the (achievement) gap without talking about cultural competence, where we try to understand everybody’s viewpoints and respect them.”

• Respect for collective bargaining. Both Fahey and Newmaster were active union members, and both value the power and voice their union provided them. When Newmaster started her career in the White Bear Lake schools, she was ineligible for family health insurance coverage because she wasn’t considered a head of her household.

“Our union supported us when it looked like we were going to take it to court, and we won family coverage,” she said.

Fahey has a track record of leadership in the White Bear Lake Teachers’ Association, serving on negotiations teams and volunteering as a members-rights representative for 11 years. She’s pushed back against administrators who accused her union of trying to “bulldoze” policies or initiatives during negotiations.

“Who is this union?” she told management. “Look at all these people in your classrooms. A union is a group of people working for a common purpose.”

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