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IEA’s “Smulk” Walks the Union Walk

November 30, 2023

Caption: Post Falls Education Association President Jake Smulkowski’s popular Summer Institute class helps IEA members understand their place in the nation’s larger labor movement.

Jake Smulkowski looks like a union member. Burly and barrel-chested, his flannel shirt and firm handshake would fit right in at a local meeting for pipe fitters or steelworkers.

Instead, he teaches fifth grade. But don’t let that make you think his strong union values are any less relevant to his worldview or how he sees what he does for a living. In fact, Smulkowski sees his place as a member of the Idaho Education Association and president of the Post Falls Education Association as a very important part of the long, proud history of America’s labor movement.

“It’s understanding that you’re part of a larger group, a larger movement,” Smulkowski said. “Understanding that there are 10,000 teachers out there in the state standing side-by-side and going through the same experiences and are allies.”

Helping Colleagues Learn about Unions

Every chance he gets, Smulkowski — affectionately known as “Smulk” to his students — tries to help his colleagues understand how the work of their local and their engagement with the IEA fits into the larger labor movement. Most summers he teaches a popular class on the topic at IEA’s Summer Institute, the premier professional development event for Idaho’s educators put on every July by IEA’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

The idea for the class came to him as he pondered the negative connotations many have about union membership. As proud union member, Smulkowski has a difficult time understanding the negative knee-jerk reaction many have to unions. Most anti-union sentiments are based on false narratives or misunderstandings about their nature. Such attitudes are particularly difficult when anti-public education extremists use them to undermine public education further.

“I really wanted to dive into that with my Summer Institute class,” Smulkowski said. “Why are their negative connotations about labor unions?”

For example, some potential members may blanche at being part of the National Education Association at the expense of missing out on the benefits of being part of their union local. Looking for ways to engage with the union, rather than surrendering to one’s opposition to any particular policy position at the national level, offers opportunities to shift the organization’s perspective while still giving them the benefit of membership, he said.

“I don’t think they often understand the democratic nature of the union,” Smulkowski said. “They have a hard time seeing that some of the value statements or resolutions they may not like are voted on by the largest deliberative democratic body in the world. If they don’t like a position, the best way to change it is to engage.”

Overcoming the False Narrative

The long-time false narrative that “labor unions destroyed Detroit” has been a very effective tool for anti-public education and anti-union extremists to label the education union negatively, he said.

“That’s part of the narrative of billionaires who are pitting people who make $10 an hour against people who make $30 an hour,” Smulkowski said. “Saying that someone who’s making $30 an hour is breaking the economy simply doesn’t make any sense.”

Or put another way:

“If you put red ants and black ants in a jar and shake up the jar they fight each other,” Smulkowski said. “They were fine before you shook it. The question shouldn’t about the red and black ants, but it should be about who shook up the jar.”

Pushing back against the extreme politics buffeting public education — especially in North Idaho — and fighting the anti-union narrative was a major driver in creating his Summer Institute class. For Smulkowski, his union is one of the few places in society where women are able to exercise considerable collective power in the workplace and where minorities of all stripes are actively represented.

“There’s been a lot of painting with a broad brush and not a lot of critical thinking,” Smulkowski said, pointing out that support for unions is higher now that it has been in decades. “Yes, a lot of our members are conservative. But I think there’s a difference between being conservative and falling for these lies and being anti-public education.”

IEA Engagement is about Fighting for Public Education

Educators have too many common interests to avoid joining together to push back against the enemies of public education. There’s too much at stake, he said. PFEA’s fight to secure competitive wages just a few minutes’ drive from districts in educator-friendly Washington and the Post Falls School District’s need to pass regular levies to fund their operations are good examples.

“Idaho families can’t expect a consistent education for Idaho students with the way funding works. That’s not right. For example, with our limited tax base, older electorate and assortment of anti-education groups, Post Falls struggles to pass levies, which are fundamental to our bottom line,” Smulkowski said. “If we do pass levies, they have to be for small amounts. If we cannot compete with Washington salaries or even salaries in neighboring Idaho districts, we will continue to lose teachers, and many of our positions already lack qualified candidates.”

PFEA has a strong relationship with the school district that has benefitted members. Administrators do the best they can for educators, Smulkowski said. But the state’s chronic underfunding of public education and the continued advance of extreme politics in the education arena bothers him.

“The Idaho Legislature is tasked by the state constitution to ‘establish and maintain a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools,’” Smulkowski added. “When students get a different education based on their zip code, the Legislature is not meeting this mandate.”

Collectively advocating for students and colleagues is the best leverage educators have to overcome inequity and attacks on education.

“I see our role as a place where people can come and be heard,” he said. “Coming together as a union is the best way teachers can work to ensure public education is equitable and educators are treated fairly.”

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