With more than 110,000 students, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, nestled in the suburbs of Houston, is the third-largest school district in Texas. In the district, Cy-Fair AFT, the local affiliate of Texas AFT, is the largest, loudest voice for employees.
A diverse union of professional educators, Cy-Fair AFT welcomes as members all non-supervisory employees, including teachers, bus drivers, custodians, food service workers, nurses, and other school support personnel. Cy-Fair AFT consistently strives to raise the standards for all employees and students in the district through local policy and advocacy.
“Members are the union, and nothing happens without involvement,” said Meghan Brannon-Reese, Cy-Fair AFT member and high school English teacher. “It’s especially hard right now, with how much everyone is stretched, but it’s important to support each other and support leadership because ultimately we are a source of strength together. We shouldn’t be afraid to lean on that and use the power of our voice.”
At the helm in this difficult time is Nikki Cowart, president of Cy-Fair AFT.
“Nikki is great at leveraging relationships. She is a peacemaker while also being an enforcer. We have great organizers who consistently show up and push back. We have momentum here,” said Mariah Najmuddin, Cy-Fair AFT member and middle school Spanish teacher. “Cy-Fair has been boots on the ground this year. We had a terrible re-opening plan, but our union sued the district, and that is incredibly empowering.”
We asked Cowart about her experience building power in her local union and her work as a local leader.
What is an example of collective action by your members revealing the power of their union?
Our most recent collective action was that our local was the first in Texas to see a legal injunction about safety protocols in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was unprecedented and unexpected. Campuses weren’t adhering to mask protocols. Some principals were going above and beyond to make sure staff felt safe at work, while others weren’t even taking masks seriously — all as Harris County COVID cases were off the chart. The district took us to the Texas Supreme Court, but after a lot of hard work, the results were widely appreciated by many in the community. We had members contacting us about how much things had improved after the legal action.
One of our largest victories before the pandemic was flipping a state representative seat, HD 135, that had seen the same public school-unfriendly lawmaker for two decades. Members decided they had enough and that our local union should get involved, and they flipped that seat two years ago [to Rep. Jon Rosenthal]. Everyone thought that flipping that seat was totally impossible. After that, our union decided that getting involved in local election races was crucial – that we really need to send representatives to the capital who will be a voice for us. That’s how we held that seat [for Rep. Rosenthal] in the recent 2020 election.
As a union, our power comes from our members, but we also know we need to back them up when necessary. Is there a recent example of when you helped a member facing problems in the workplace?
Servicing our membership is a big part of our work. I am proud to say our local is known for helping our members; we specialize in it. We want welcoming, safe campuses with the most talented workforce, however, most employees aren’t often trained on policies, which is where a strong union comes in to play.
We have an amazing member, an elementary teacher, who had been fully trained on student removal [using the Safe Schools Act], and she’s done so much professional development. She had a student who needed additional help because of a behavioral problem that was becoming a huge issue for the other students in the classroom to be able to learn. Union staff and leadership reminded her that she has all the tools she needed to meet with the principal even though she had never done that type of thing before. At that meeting, within 10 minutes, things were resolved. Non-union members don’t realize they have those tools in their tool bag. Sometimes administrators have a bad habit of blaming teachers for classroom management, but teachers don’t always know the handbook and policies. Being part of our union is like having someone on speed dial that you can ask for help.
Additionally, our local union negotiated with transportation directors so that if bus drivers came to our safety training, whether those drivers were union members or not, they would get one additional point added to their evaluations. That was unprecedented, and we are the only union in Texas that got that deal with transportation directors.
What are some of the biggest issues you’re facing in your district right now, and what’s the plan of attack to find a solution?
School started Sept. 8 in Cy-Fair, and about half of students were on campus, and the other half chose to do remote learning. We have never been a 1-1 district where each student has an electronic device, so we cannot legally shut down a campus because not every student has access to a laptop. Our members were advocating for the need to close down campuses, but we couldn’t because large groups of students would not have had any way to access education. As of this week, high school kids will now have access to an internet hot spot and laptop, and that’s big news. We can’t even begin to think too much ahead and worry about next semester yet.
Beyond that, our biggest issue going forward is going to be funding. Cy-Fair is still thought of as this wealthy district, but our demographics have shifted a lot over the last two decades, and we are prepping for a very tumultuous legislative session. We are planning mini lobby days, where our various members can go and give testimony about how important funding and resources are in these particularly uncertain times.
Are there any members or leaders in your area who are particularly inspiring?
Yes! I lovingly refer to them as my “ninjas.”
There’s Ramon Hernandez, a law enforcement officer, who has an approach to his work that is so hands-on with students. He considers his job to be a partnership. I have a lot of respect for him.
There’s also Ms. Silver Davis, a bus driver, who I would want to be driving my own kids. I can’t say enough good things about her. She is so inclusive, very warm and welcoming of new hires. She approaches the work as if it’s a family, she’s very proud of the union. I’m not looking forward to when she retires!
There’s also Mariah Najmuddin, a local member who has a heart for racial equity, and she unapologetically brings those concerns to the policymakers in Cy-Fair. The last few meetings she has really spoken her truth around those issues.
How did you get involved with the union? How many years have you been a local leader?
I went to school in Cy-Fair. My four boys are either Cy-Fair graduates or current students. My sister went to school in Cy-Fair and is currently an employee of the district. I’m Cy-Fair and public school proud.
I’ve always been an advocate for kids. The way I approach this work is more from a “PTA Mama” standpoint — maybe even to my detriment — but my approach is maternal and protective of members and my colleagues. I am a fixer and I want to find solutions, especially if a student or a member is suffering. I look at the whole picture: My kids go to these schools, and I am a taxpayer here. I feel like this work is a calling, especially in a union leadership role. I love what I do. There is nothing else I can imagine doing, but I could never imagine doing this work outside of Cy-Fair. Not because I am from here, but because every local has its own flair in how it operates.
I started working with AFT in 2004 as an employee. I’ve been a part of AFT for 16 years now, but we didn’t charter as a local [union] until 2010. I guess it’s been about 10 years of being a leader. I’ve been the only local president since we’ve chartered. I am one of only a handful of presidents in the country who have worked their way up from the bottom.
I remember Linda Bridges told me that all the members wanted me in the leadership role. I was suffering from keeping my head down a lot because I didn’t feel worthy or like I had things to add since I wasn’t a teacher or a bus driver. But [Texas AFT President] Zeph Capo told me that my voice mattered and that I had just as much of a right to be in the room. At the end of the day, we should all be organizers. So I owned it. Own your story.