Houston Unions Won Elected Consultation. Here’s Why It Matters.

Text says, "What is elected consultation?" Illustration shows four people smiling at a table.

In December, the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) and Houston Educational Support Personnel (HESP) won elected consultation in Houston ISD. The results were overwhelming: HFT won with 93% of the vote and HESP won its election with 80% of the vote.

Coming amid the challenges of a global pandemic, this victory is even more significant, and it wouldn’t have happened without the collective power built by union members and leaders.

“Elected consultation is a direct vehicle to the administration and board for all employees to have a voice at the HISD table to address issues such as working conditions, salaries, and benefits,” said Wretha Thomas, HESP president. “The support that employees receive will be much stronger now that the union holds the official voice at the table.”

Leaders for both Houston unions look forward to discussing policy issues related to health and safety, wages and benefits, professional development, and curriculum.

This elected consultation victory centers the voices of educators and school staff in discussions with the district and improves the ability to implement employee-focused policy.

What is elected consultation?

Many folks know the term “collective bargaining,” the process through which a union negotiates working conditions and wages with an employer. Many folks in Texas also like to ding our well-established union credentials because collective bargaining is largely prohibited in Texas.

Elected consultation is a close cousin of collective bargaining, allowing an elected employee organization to meet regularly with district administrators and have a voice on topics related to pay, benefits, working conditions, and the overall employee experience. Several of our local unions — including, now, in Houston — have such an arrangement with their districts.

Education Austin, for example, has had elected consultation in Austin ISD for many years.

“Elected consultation is a formal policy-driven agreement that the district will meet with labor on a regular basis,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin. “Consultation opens the door to meet once a month, but the benefit is much greater than just a meeting because we build relationships. That gives us the ability to get more things done.”

How does consultation make a difference?

Elected consultation provides a meaningful, consistent space for dialogue between educators, school staff, and district administrators. For Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance, the consultation process has been an invaluable step in the ongoing fight to win full collective bargaining rights.

“Consultation ensures there is a space where district leadership is required to meet with elected representatives from the union to discuss important topics that affect workers across the district,” Lopez said. “Without it there would be no dedicated, ongoing space for the union to engage in conversation with the district.”

“Consultation ensures there is a space where district leadership is required to meet with elected representatives from the union to discuss important topics that affect workers across the district.”

Alejandra Lopez, San Antonio Alliance president

Each month in San Antonio, the consultation team of union representatives gathers issues members are experiencing at their worksites and brings them to district leadership. The consultation process, Lopez said, allows the team to engage in a conversation “where we advocate for our members and try to engage in meaningful dialogue with district leadership.”

While one of the stated goals of elected consultation is to build a better working relationship between employee and employer, Zarifis notes that the process also can make a stronger relationship between a union and its members.

“Consultation puts a responsibility on the union to find out what its members are needing, and by doing that we are able to amplify, in a formal way, the needs of our membership to the district in a way that adds to our collective power,” Zarifis said. “We bring things forward in consultation because it is a broadly held opinion and deeply felt within our membership. This helps us to be more accountable and to increase equity.”

What are the long-term effects of elected consultation?

Elected consultation is a powerful process of collective action that can transform school districts and build strong benefits and working conditions for employees. And it helps students too, by improving relations between district administrators and their employees.

“I look at this past decade I’ve been serving [as President of Education Austin], and having consultation has allowed us to stay continuously engaged with the district by forcing them to come to the table and be present. We’re also able to call them out if they don’t,” Zarifis said. “We’ve gained considerable pay raises, we’ve seen improvements to our insurance policy, and we created new teacher evaluation practices. Because of the trust and relationships built through consultation, we’ve seen tremendous outcomes.”

“We’ve gained considerable pay raises, we’ve seen improvements to our insurance policy, and we created new teacher evaluation practices.”

Ken Zarifis, Education Austin president

Ultimately, elected consultation is one piece of the organizing puzzle, but it’s an important one.

“We have a responsibility to engage in every space possible – at the school board, at rallies, at protests, at the consultation table – consultation is not the end all be all, but it is one more meaningful space to bring our issues to seek meaningful change,” Lopez said. “Our goal is to continue to build power and engage in all spaces. Winning consultation is one of the mechanisms where we continue to build that power.”