- Ten years ago, the members of the North Dakota Education Association and members of the North Dakota Public Employees Association were asked to serve as delegates of their locals and chapters at a Unity Assembly in Bismarck.
- On Feb. 2, 2013, history was made in a packed convention center at the Radisson in Bismarck as North Dakota United was approved by a margin far exceeding the required 2/3 majority of delegates.
- Sept. 1, 2023, marks the 10-year anniversary of date on which North Dakota United was officially formed.
Members of the North Dakota Education Association, the state’s union of K-12 teachers, education support professionals, retired school personnel and aspiring educators, and members of the North Dakota Public Employees Association, the state’s union for higher education faculty and staff, state, county and municipal employees, and retired public workers, were asked to serve as delegates of their locals and chapters at a Unity Assembly in Bismarck.
The decision was not one taken lightly. For many decades, these two groups existed separately, with different structures, affiliations and cultures. More times than not, they stood on the same side of big issues. In fact, it was on the issue of two ballot initiatives in 2008, which would drastically reduce tax revenues that fund our school districts and public services, that our two unions of public servants stood together in opposition and first witnessed what was possible when we all worked together.
A first meeting was held in August 2009 to explore avenues of cooperation. By 2010, both organizations adopted cooperation and consolidation agreements, and formed a Unity Team. In April 2011, both representative assemblies overwhelmingly approved a joint mission statement and principles of unity, and the drafting of a constitution and bylaws for a new union to represent their shared vision. After a year and a half of meetings and discussions, the NDPEA and NDEA boards both approved the merger and transition agreement and scheduled Feb. 2, 2013, as the date of a joint delegate assembly to vote on merger.
On that day, history was made in a packed convention center at the Radisson in Bismarck as North Dakota United was approved by a margin far exceeding the required 2/3 majority of delegates. Overwhelmingly, our members had chosen to join. Together.
Sept. 1, 2023, marks the 10-year anniversary of date on which North Dakota United was officially formed. Looking back at the decision that we all made as a group a decade back, on a cold, wintry day in Bismarck, one can’t help but notice the parallels to the choice we all made as individuals.
Whenever and however you were first asked to join NDPEA, NDEA or ND United, you likely asked the question, to yourself or the person asking: What’s in it for me?
The reasons to join together, then and now, are myriad. But on this special occasion, we are taking a look back at a few of the statements made by leaders and members of our predecessor unions on why their compatriots should make the decision to merge and, together, become North Dakota United.
Marie Snavely was a member of NDPEA at the time of merger, working as an art instructor for Dickinson State University. She was also a member of NDEA, having retired as an art teacher on the secondary level, and maintained dual memberships. In a column she wrote for the NDPEA Advocate newsletter, she made the pitch to support merger by sharing a lesson she’d learned from watching a movie titled “The Straight Story,” which was about the journey a 73-year-old man named Alvin Straight embarked upon a riding lawnmower to visit his estranged brother, who lived 377 miles away.
“While camped by the road,” she wrote, “sitting at a campfire, Alvin Straight told the story of a bundle of sticks to a young man who had joined him on the road and stopped to camp with him for the night. He said if you have one stick, it can easily be broken. But when you join a group of sticks in a bundle, it is almost impossible to break the mass. … Why not create a larger bundle of sticks? There is strength in numbers. There is great wisdom in joining forces between our two organizations and over 10,000 members, and all speaking with one voice.”
Together, we have proven that axiom to be true. When our state’s educators and public employees combine our now 11,000+ voices and efforts, we can achieve powerful results. Not just for ourselves, but for all our state’s students, families and the communities in which we live. As part of North Dakota United and our two national affiliates, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, we work together with close to five million members nationwide to ensure that educators and public employees like you have a stronger voice at the local, state and national level.
A flyer created by NDPEA and discussed in member meetings across ND stated: “Uniting our two organizations will create North Dakota United, the largest labor organization in our state, and give public employees and educators a stronger voice to fight for better public services, better schools and a better future.”
Then-NEA Director Alicia Bata said in a speech to the final Representative Assembly of the NDEA that “collected effort brings huge successes. A thousand phone calls make a big difference and get results we could never achieve.”
In the ten years since merger, we’ve seen how true these words by Bata, now-NDU Vice President for Education, really are. When rule changes and bad legislation have been proposed in the last ten years and five legislative sessions, our members have responded. Thousands upon thousands of calls, emails, messages and conversations, from and with our members have regularly made the difference in turning back bad ideas and lifting up proposals that are good and benefit us all.
In 2012, while discussions on merger were taking place in earnest, our two organizations were part of a large coalition of businesses, associations, nonprofits and unions that gathered together and soundly defeated a ballot measure that would have eliminated property taxes. As NDU Executive Director Chad Oban writes in this issue of United Voices, it was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now. It was also instructive to our members, then and now, that if we come together as friends, colleagues, family and neighbors, we can achieve great things.
In a Bismarck Tribune article from Dec. 23, 2012, Nick Archuleta, who was then a member of the NDEA Board of Directors and teacher at Century High School in Bismarck, said, “It will allow us to address the issue of transitioning from high school to higher ed. So, when we send a kid from public school, say in Bismarck, to the University of North Dakota, we’ll have a good understanding of what (college professors) are expecting and what we should be teaching to transition over that divide.”
Now, as president of North Dakota United, Nick can say with certainty that making the decision to join together – both then and now – has the potential to benefit not just the women and men who make up our membership of more than 11,000 public educators and employees, but also the students, families and citizens of our state.
Gary Feist was President of NDPEA in 2012, and now serves as Vice President for Public Employees of ND United. In an article that was featured in the NDPEA Advocate newsletter, Feist agreed with the idea that we all benefit from speaking together in a louder, more powerful voice on behalf of the people we serve professionally – all of the students and citizens of our state.
“The merger of our union with NDEA will allow us to speak with a strong, united voice on issues that are important to public employees, higher education faculty and staff, and K-12 teachers.,” Feist said. “This larger, stronger union will allow us to advocate for the quality public services we provide to the citizens of North Dakota each and every day.”
In a letter sent to our union’s combined forces on Feb. 26, 2013, then-U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp wrote: “This is a proud day for all public workers in our state, who work tirelessly to make sure every citizen of North Dakota has access to high-quality public services. Uniting together in one organization will ensure public workers have a strong voice in the workplace, at the state Capitol, and in Washington to stand up for quality public services.”
In the decade since the vote to form our still-new union, statements like the ones shared here today and in countless conversations held in our homes and workplaces, at numerous workshops, conferences, Regional Assemblies, Delegate Assemblies, and in the media, online and across 43 issues of United Voices magazine, we hope the case for unity has been made. And will continue to be made, for the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years.
Ten years ago, our members were asked the question – will you join together to form North Dakota United? The choice they made then changed the course of history. You, too, can continue to make history. All it takes is answering that same question – are you North Dakota United?
How will you answer? Then and now, we hope it will be – yes.