In 2013, a group of Ohio teachers found a growing rift between their local union and the National Education Association. In a hard-won battle, they took back control and formed an independent union. Five years on, they say things are better than ever.
On a sunny spring day in a Cincinnati suburb of quiet homes and emerald grass, teachers at the Indian Hill Exempted Village School District huddled into a fluorescent-lit conference room.
It was a half-day at school, and the six educators could have been enjoying their prelude to summer. Instead, they were eager to tell Free to Teach how they had formed a local-only, independent teachers’ union in one of America’s most high-achieving school districts.
To make the break, the teachers withdrew their local from the Ohio Education Association (OEA) and NEA in 2014. The teachers are so happy with the collaborative organization they have since built, they don’t even like to call what they have a “union.” Instead, they emphasize the word “P” in their title, the Indian Hill Educators’ Professional Organization, or IHEPO.
Anne Kuhn, the current IHEPO president, is an AP math teacher who was on the negotiations team with the local union when it still belonged to the OEA/NEA. Negotiations for a new teachers’ contract had begun in fall 2013, but stalled and became contentious by October, when a mediator was brought in.
Kuhn explains the union wanted to focus on national issues that had little relevance for Indian Hill. For their part, the teachers wanted to bargain over items like instituting back pay following a three-year salary freeze and boosting athletic supplementals.
“They just had their national agenda, and it didn’t apply to us at all,” Kuhn said.
As negotiations grew more adversarial, a divide between the Indian Hill teachers and the OEA/NEA union emerged. The union asked teachers to walk out of a board meeting after the Pledge of Allegiance. The teachers did so, but were horrified, Kuhn said.
The union then planned to picket the high school’s homecoming game, but teachers refused. The community’s backlash would have been immense if the Indian Hill staff had complied, and the teachers said they respected students and parents too much to demonstrate at such an important event.
“We had really positive relationships with our administration and board members,” said Jenn Oden, an IHEPO representative and Primary Counselor. “There was just this feeling we didn’t want these people representing us.”
As fall progressed and negotiations stalled, Kuhn began to wonder if there was a better way to do teacher representation and get a new contract. By December 2013, she had left the OEA negotiations team and was asking around for labor attorneys who could represent an independent local. She had also discovered handy online instructions from Ohio’s state government explaining how teachers could remove an unwanted union.
Mark Atwood, a Latin teacher and IHEPO vice president, explained what persuaded him to support an independent union.
“One of the (OEA) tactics was to just work to contract,” he said. “That meant writing no letters of recommendation for kids, and that was really asking me to stick it to the kids we’re teaching. What sets us apart as teachers is we’re not laborers. We’re highly trained professionals. We don’t work for owners—we serve taxpayers and kids.”
Once the teachers had decided to leave OEA/NEA, however, they found the exit path strewn with obstacles.
For one, while the OEA had access to teachers’ e-mail addresses and mailboxes, Kuhn had to hustle on foot from one teacher to another to make the case for IHEPO. She relied on colleagues in different buildings to help, and left informational flyers on classroom chairs. When the local’s OEA president was administering a test in Kuhn’s classroom, Kuhn even resorted to hiding IHEPO’s legal paperwork under her desk.
“It takes weeks, it takes months, there’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of due diligence,” Kuhn said about the disaffiliation process. In fact, the new local had to be so careful not to appear aligned with administrators, Kuhn could not even use school district photocopiers.
In January 2014, IHEPO found a reliable attorney in John Concannon. By that point, the new local had encountered several unhelpful lawyers who belittled the idea of an independent local. Some told the teachers to join AFT instead of NEA, or asked why the elementary school even needed a counselor like Oden for such young kids.
Concannon is so proud of helping the Indian Hill teachers build their own union, he joined them in telling Free to Teach their story—on his second day of retirement, no less.
“There was arrogance there—there was ‘We got a lock on this school,’” Concannon explained of the OEA’s attitude. “They weren’t about pleasing their customers.”
The OEA also had an army of union staff at state headquarters in Columbus to help them run a counter-campaign against IHEPO. They launched a website called “Just the Facts” that was filled with misrepresentations about how teachers would fare under IHEPO. The propaganda assault was so thorough, IHEPO leaders had to decide carefully what to respond to, and what to leave alone.
Two months after hiring Concannon, IHEPO voted to leave OEA/NEA, and filed their request to the Ohio’s state labor relations board for a new workplace election. The vote took place in June 2014 by mail-in ballot, and Kuhn recalls driving to Columbus to watch officials count the votes.
Even before they got the official tally, Kuhn could tell IHEPO had won. The pile of “yes” ballots—agreeing to new representation—steadily rose higher than the “no” stack.
In the end, the vote was 115-38 in IHEPO’s favor. The organization now has 170 members—nearly all of Indian Hill’s teachers.
Matters at the school district improved rapidly once IHEPO took control. The new teachers’ organization quickly made Kuhn president and signed a new contract following months of deadlock under the OEA/NEA. Kuhn and IHEPO council members also slashed union dues from $757 to only $200 a year per teacher.
“They pay less and they get more service,” Kuhn notes.
Oden agrees. “And more voice,” she adds. “I don’t ever remember being asked what I thought by the OEA.”
Most importantly, Kuhn notes, there’s no longer a management vs. labor mentality. She jokes: “It used to be proposal and counter-proposal. Now we sit inter-mixed and hold hands and sing kum-bah-ya.”
Superintendent Mark Miles agrees wholeheartedly.
The workplace climate was so combative under the OEA, he explains, his regular meetings with its president were filled with union complaints. That OEA head even sent out an all-staff e-mail saying she recognized how “morale sucked” in the district, putting administrators on the defensive.
Now, Miles said, meetings are highly collaborative. “There’s such a trusting relationship between these individuals,” he said. “I don’t refer to this group as a union; it’s an organization. The word ‘grievance’—I don’t think in the last 3-4 years that word has been used.”
Miles clearly thinks a collaborative local-only is the ideal solution for many school districts. So why isn’t it catching on more quickly?
“Fear,” he says, simply. Fear among teachers that some school boards or administrators would take advantage of the relationship, and fear-mongering from the state and national unions over any innovations. “What group of teachers wants to risk what they currently have when the board is constantly changing?”
For their part, IHEPO leaders aren’t afraid to try things. They now hold sessions informing teachers of all the health insurance options available, and even give advice on how to manage personal retirement accounts.
IHEPO also tried offering a school daycare during snow days once, though it didn’t go as well as they had hoped. As Atwood explains, they’re okay with that.
“After Janus, you can’t be just a collective bargaining thing—you have to do more for your members,” he says. “The purpose of your organization has to be everything that it was, but more.
“When you go local, you can’t set it and forget it. You have to keep working on it every day. You have to try things that will probably fail.”
So far, the new system has worked admirably.
As High School Art Teacher Julie Pfeiffer explains, she wasn’t interested in joining the OEA. During the local-only fight, the OEA even made fun of a flyer she designed in support of the new teacher organization. Now she is not only a member, she is IHEPO Secretary as well.
At Indian Hill, the teachers, administrators, and community have found a way to make everyone happy and keep stellar standards. “With this group, we don’t tolerate bad behavior,” Kuhn says. “OEA would defend teachers whatever they had done.”
A local focus, teachers dedicated to excellence, and a collaborative spirit: it turns out fostering these simple values has built a school environment where everyone is happy. IHEPO provides an example to follow—and a place where students and teachers thrive.
Additional Resources on how IHEPO disaffiliated from OEA/NEA: