BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. (PAI) — Calhoun County, Fla., is a little rural county in Florida’s panhandle. It’s closer to Alabama than to Miami – and its citizens vote like Alabama’s, too: It’s two-thirds white and two-thirds of its votes went to Florida’s right-wing GOP governor in 2014.
But on Oct. 4, the teachers in Calhoun County’s school system made history: They voted union, with the National Education Association.
In doing so, Calhoun County became the final Florida county whose teachers unionized with either the NEA, the larger of the nation’s two teachers unions, or the American Federation of Teachers — 42 years after the first countywide teachers group in Florida went union.
NEA traditionally has been more dominant in rural and conservative areas of the country. Its current president, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, is a primary-grades teacher from one of the reddest states in the country, Utah. And that was the case in Calhoun County, too.
But rural or urban, the issues were the same, Russell Baggett, president of the Association of Calhoun Educations, told NEA: Respect on the job, pay, and a voice in learning conditions in the schools.
“We heard about teachers in our neighbor districts and what they get—their rights, their voice—and we thought, ‘Why can’t we have that?’” Baggett, who has spent 49 years in Calhoun’s schools, first as a student and now teaching students, told the union.
For years, Baggett, a nationally certified teacher, explained, the small size of the county and the school district – five schools and 2,200 students, total – meant everybody knew everybody else and that gave the Calhoun teachers a say in their working conditions.
But with the advent of right wing politics, relations worsened. Pay suffered: Calhoun teachers could cross the county line and earn $5,000 more than their yearly average of $40,792. That figure was sixth from the bottom among Florida’s 68 counties, state data shows.
More importantly, teachers in the other 67 counties had a say on the job. Not Calhoun’s.
While two-thirds of the voting Calhoun teachers eventually voted union, the NEA had to run an undercover campaign to organize them. That’s because Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., had convinced the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature, five years ago, to eliminate tenure. Say “the ‘u’ word” and you might be out of a job in an area like Calhoun County, Baggett said.
“We may go away for school, but we come home to live and teach. If a person lost their position here, they’d have to leave their home to keep their career. So that fear factor is strong,” he added.
But the Calhoun teachers overcame it. Now the next step is to get a contract, and they’re seeking advice from teachers unions – in Florida’s other 67 counties.