Protecting our Futures: United Teachers of Dade 

Sara Paredes, Feature Editor

With roots stemming from over 150 years ago in the United States, labor unions have fought for the rights of employees and play pivotal roles in establishing a middle class, as well as providing workers with various protections and benefits. 

Specifically, for the teachers and educators of Miami-Dade County, United Teachers of Dade is the union that serves to ensure teachers are provided with proper working conditions, wages, healthcare benefits and more, decided through the collective bargaining process and negotiation. 

UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats identifies the organization’s establishment as an important shift toward equality and fair pay. 

“Historically, [labor unions] have been a really important figure in making sure that the middle class exists in the States. Here in the state of Florida, something interesting about UTD is [it was] the first teachers union in the south to desegregate. So, before 1974, there were two teachers’ unions; there was a Black teachers union and the White teachers union was called the Classroom Teachers Association. And UTD wanted to exist as an organization that represented everybody because the wages were very different for Black teachers back then,” Hernandez-Mats said. 

Within each school, teachers who serve as members of UTD come together to elect stewards, which represent the school’s UTD chapter through their advocacy and reliability, and serve as mediators between teachers and administration.  

“We have a contract, which is close to 250 pages long. I’m the liaison between the teachers and staff and the administration,” Primary Steward of UTD at Miami Palmetto Senior High School and Honors Chemistry teacher Wendi Werther said. “So, a steward needs to know the contract… Being a steward is like being the interface, there are rules that teachers have to follow. An administrator might come to me saying, ‘listen, could you talk to them for me’ before they discipline them, and I can stop whatever bad’s going on before it happens.”

In order to develop these contracts, administrative members of UTD and members of the M-DCPS School Board collaborated to negotiate salaries and working conditions, taking students into consideration as well. As a former Junior Vice President of UTD, Werther’s years of experience with the organization allow her to apply this knowledge through her role as a steward at MPSH. 

“A contract is set out by negotiations by groups of people from the school board, a couple of administrators and people from the teachers union, a group of teachers and they sit there and they go back and forth through negotiations. They negotiate salary, working conditions, they do everything they can to try and protect students as well,” Werther said.

As a teacher, being a member of UTD and former steward at MPSH has allowed Honors Geometry teacher Stephen Leverett to recognize the importance of providing support for all teachers. 

“The role of any union is to protect the rights of its members. For the UTD that means legal, financial and professional support of our school employees. While we have an extremely positive working atmosphere at our school, life has a way of throwing us curveballs. When this happens, it is important to have UTD in our corner, much like car insurance: sometimes you don’t realize how important it is until an emergency happens,” Leverett said.

With an ever-changing political climate in Florida, decisions made by state legislators and the government often put teachers and their careers at risk, with their unions being the protective layer between the government and educators. 

“One of the problems that the state legislature has with us is that we are that firewall. We are the ones that are criticizing the bad laws that our state is making. We’re the ones that are informing parents about things that should not exist that are impacting education. So, there’s a big attack from the government to teachers’ unions, because we are it. Once we don’t exist, they can pay teachers whatever they want to, they can take away their rights and their contract, and then they don’t have an organized group fighting back bad policies, then they can do whatever they want with education. That’s why it’s important that we protect our union,” Hernandez-Mats said. 

For Hernandez-Mats, organizing teachers and ensuring their protection in the workforce is imperative to producing a healthy learning environment, which translates to a future with a well-educated generation and a strong economy.  

“What I tell folks all the time, and what people should understand, is that a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning environment. So, when teachers have access to the resources that they need, when teachers have good pay when teachers don’t have to worry about buying supplies for their students or having enough books in class or enough seats, all these things impact the learning environment,” Hernandez-Mats said. “We’re fighting for one and the same thing, and obviously if you pay teachers what they deserve, then you have a high-quality educator sitting in front of students. You have quality educators sitting in front of students, you’re guaranteeing that those kids get the best education from people that are committed to the profession. And that goes a long way because that’s exponential growth. You’ll have a strong economy in the future.”