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Group That Led Mass Teacher Sickouts To Unionize Kentucky Public Employees

Liz Schlemmer

Kentucky 120 United, the public education advocacy group that led mass teacher sickouts in 2018 and 2019, is unionizing.

“We seek better. We seek more. We seek our voices to be heard in the halls of Frankfort and our local communities,” KY 120 United co-founder Nema Brewer said Monday from the steps of the state capitol.

It was inside that building that KY 120 United gathered thousands of teachers, school employees, parents and other supporters in 2018 and 2019 to oppose attempts to slash teacher retirement benefits, create charter schools and send would-be tax dollars to private schools. According to Brewer, the group now has 38,000 members.

Group leaders said unionizing is the next step in their advocacy. They plan to join the American Federation of Teachers and accept all public employees as members. KY 120 United will become known as KY 120 United AFT, they said.

Historically, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) has led advocacy in Frankfort for better teacher pay, benefits and working conditions, though the group is not officially a union. Some branches of the KEA, including the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA), have collective bargaining agreements. 

Many members of KY 120 United are members of the KEA and JCTA, but Brewer said she and other leaders are relinquishing their memberships.

“We’re not trying to hurt KEA, but what we’re saying is we just want something a little more substantial, something with a union backing,” she told WFPL News.

Brewer said it is possible to be a member of both KEA and the new union. But she doesn’t know yet whether employees can be in both KY 120 United AFT and JCTA.

Speaking at the capitol, member Christina Trosper said inequities laid bare by the pandemic prompted the group to unionize. But Brewer said the idea has been “brewing” for the last three years, and the latest pension reform bill to pass both chambers was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The proposal, HB 258, would create a new tier for teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2022, with less generous benefits. Representatives from JCTA and KEA participated in months of discussions during which the proposal was crafted. 

KEA remained neutral on that pension reform bill when it came to a vote. But KY 120 United, which was founded in opposition to pension reductions, stood against it.

Brewer said the pension bill was the “linchpin” that revealed differences between her group, and KEA and JCTA.

She believes unionizing will give KY 120 United more power in future conversations around teacher pensions and public school funding, and allow more voice for employees.

 KEA president Eddie Campbell responded in a statement shared by a spokesperson. 

“For over 160 years, KEA has stood strong and spoken up for Kentucky’s educators, students, and public schools. Our trusted and united voice is unwavering. KEA believes every school employee deserves robust, reliable, and accessible advocacy in the workplace and in the legislature. As we have always done, we will continue to empower our members to provide a quality public education for every Kentucky student,” the statement reads.

Beshear vetoed HB 258, but the House overrode his veto Monday afternoon. The Senate is likely to do the same.

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