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Group of people gathered around table in background, behind sign that reads "Up North Pizza & Pub."
NDU In Action

Grand Forks Members Host Unity Event

Members of the Grand Forks Education Association, UND United, public employees, NDU-Retired and Student NDU came together for social event in Grand Forks to build power and get to know each other.

Power & Pizza

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In 2013, when the members of the North Dakota Education Association and North Dakota Public Employees Association elected to merge and form North Dakota United, they created a rather unique situation. Our union is one of only two state education associations in our nation – the other being the Montana Federation of Public Employees – that includes membership categories in K-12 teachers and education support professionals; higher education faculty and staff; state, county, and city government employees; aspiring educators; and retired public educators and employees.

With that many potential voices from across the sphere of public workers and educators, how can we all potentially bring all of these people and perspectives together in one place?

Well, offer them pizza. Of course.

“We were at the GROW team meeting that was held this summer,” said Amber Haskell, government relations chair for Grand Forks Education Association, which is made up of K-12 teachers and education support professionals. “And as we were talking, we realized we're all members of North Dakota United, but we haven't really had the chance to come together. … Some of our members didn't even know there were other locals of North Dakota United in Grand Forks, so we decided to bring together Grand Forks Education Association, UND United, the students and our public employees with NDU.”

Haskell coordinated with Daphne Pederson and Liz Legerski, who are both members of UND United, the local association of University of North Dakota faculty and staff, about possibly doing a “Unity Event” in Grand Forks sometime. Plans came together, and an event was held at Up North Pizza & Pub on Nov. 28, 2023.

“I've been lucky to participate in some activities at ND United with the GROW team and other activities,” Liz Legerski, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Dakota and vice president of UND United, said. “And I always really enjoy getting to meet my K-12 colleagues from around the state. We've been talking for a long time about how we feel we could work together more and help support each other more, because we are all one union, even though we're in different areas of careers. And so I was really excited when this came up and when Amber and Daphne decided that we should have something, I was like, ‘Yeah, let's do it.’ I really think it was a great opportunity.”

Public employees and educators seated at tables in a room for a Grand Forks union event.
Photo by Kelly Hagen, NDU Communications Director

GROW-ing Together

The first step to putting the event together was to recruit help and get all parties involved on the same page. "I visited with our exec board, and everybody was like, 'Absolutely, we have to do this,'" Haskell said. "Let's talk to our folks. ... Let's get them at the table."

Bringing so many people with different job categories and responsibilities together at one table can be a challenge, but it's not an obstacle that our members don't regularly meet within their own locals and chapters. Legerski compared the dynamics of bringing together these separate groups of ND United to what her leadership team at UND United does on the campus of the University of North Dakota.

"One of the things that I really value about being a member of a union is that it provides opportunities to collaborate with other people," Legerski said. "As a faculty member, my union membership allows me the opportunity to collaborate with staff across campus who are in different areas and departments that I might not have a lot of interaction with, but now we can come together and work together (on) shared interests and things that are important to us."

And this same spirit of inviting everyone together and making them feel welcome can be scaled up and across communities, like Grand Forks, and throughout our state. "I see that exact same kind of collaborative energy being able to work with K-12 and other public employees," she said. "We have these shared interests and there are opportunities where we can support each other, (and) kind of build our voices together. I think it's really, really important." 

Quote byLiz Legerski , UND United Vice President

"One of the things that I really value about being a member of a union is that it provides opportunities to collaborate with other people."
—Liz Legerski , UND United Vice President

Strength in Solidarity

Solidarity has helped enormously for Grand Forks educators in recent years, as they've been able to flex their strength in numbers during school board elections and contract negotiations. "We've had more of our AFL-CIO folks show up through negotiations and stuff," Haskell said. "We had a fantastic round of negotiations last time, so things went really well, and they went really well because we had the correct (school) board members at the table, that our union brothers and sisters, at North Dakota United and the AFL-CIO, helped us get in place."

Public employees and educators seated at tables in a room for a Grand Forks union event.
ND United organizers Sarah Grossbauer and Andy Winter discuss the most recent legislative session with a group of members at Up North Pizza & Pub in Grand Forks on Nov. 23, 2023. Credit: Photo by Kelly Hagen, NDU Communications Director

Haskell also credits that same spirit of solidarity in helping GFEA members get through less acrimonious negotiations. "So, not this last spring but the negotiations two years before that, things were getting a lot more contentious, I guess would be the word, and it was just trickier to navigate," she said. "We really wanted to finish up. We just really wanted to be done. Everybody was ready, and we decided we were going to stay late one night and we're just going to get it done. And that, I think, was the night that our AFL-CIO folks and our other North Dakota United members showed up and just were there, (so) we ordered pizza. You know, we've got to feed people if we're going to stay late. But it made a difference in helping everything get wrapped up."

Legerski echoes Haskell's thoughts on how important it is for all members of our union to show up in support for one another. "I want our K-12 educators to know that we have their back, that we will help fight for them and that we will help amplify their voice," Legerski said. "That we will do what we can to help them do the work that they need to do. And so, I feel like events like this do give us the chance to meet each other so that we're not strangers, (and) so that when things come up, they can say like, 'Hey, we need numbers, we need your help, we need your voice, can you help us?' And we will always say yes."

Quote byAmber Haskell , GFEA Government Relations Chair

"These are our union brothers and sisters, and we're all here fighting the same fight, just in different areas of public service."
—Amber Haskell , GFEA Government Relations Chair

Value of Belonging

When asked if they would encourage members of the various constituencies within ND United in other communities to host unity events like they did, both Legerski and Haskell were enthusiastic with their support. "These are our union brothers and sisters," Haskell said, "and we're all here fighting the same fight, just in different areas of public service. ... There's strength in numbers, when it comes down to it, the more of us there are together, the stronger we are." 

Legerski would answer any questions about hosting a unity event in the same way she answers questions of why public workers should join their union in the first place. "In North Dakota United, (except for) K-12 staff and educators, we don't have collective bargaining rights," she said. "And so, I think for some people, they think, well, what's the value of a union? But for me, I have seen firsthand that the value of being a member of the union is in our ability to work together to fight bad legislation, to address areas of concern in our workplaces when they pop up, (and) to help hold our local leaders accountable."

Union members always see the best return on their investment when they don't just join, but are active in their membership, Legerski said. "I see great value in participating in a union because it gives me the chance to work with others who share those same values and who we can fight together for the things that we think are important," she added. "So, I think there's every reason to join a union. And I'm really proud to be a member of North Dakota United for that reason."

(Editor's Note -- Amber Haskell has since been hired by North Dakota United as a Field Consultant in the Northeast ND region.)

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