As someone who spent 36 years working in private and public schools, I never questioned the wisdom of paying union dues once I entered the public sector as a teacher at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center.

Before I came to CPS, I taught social studies for 18 years in private schools. It was a wonderful and fun experience, but the pay and benefits were meager.

I decided to move to the public sector for two reasons. First, I wanted to put in enough years to qualify for a reasonable pension. Second, I was becoming restless because I didn’t have much of a say about how these schools were being run. At my last private school, a priest got into a heated argument with a member of the lay faculty, reminding him that it was the religious order’s school—not the teachers’—and that the religious order would make decisions regarding the school.

So it was refreshing to join the faculty at Von Steuben and become a member of the Chicago Teachers Union. For the first time in my career as an educator, I felt that this school was my school, because I had a voice as an educator through my union.

The salary and benefits gains were immediate. My starting income was much higher than in the private sector. Plus, there was a great pension plan, accumulative sick days and other benefits like vacation days and paid holidays.

I realized immediately that none of this would have been possible without the CTU and our dues-paying members. The union had to fight for higher pay and benefits, and there had been a number of strikes before I joined the CTU.

Now, in the wake of Janus, CTU members are being told by people like Bruce Rauner and the Illinois Policy Institute that we should quit our union and stop paying union dues. If we quit on our union, we totally disregard the CTU members who sacrificed and walked the picket line to win financial security for our members.

I never complained about the need to pay union dues because those dues were more than offset by all the benefits I received. This became even more obvious after I retired in 2010. My pension guaranteed a financially secure retirement for the rest of my life. The pension and the salary hikes that I received far exceeded the dues that came out of my paycheck while I was employed at CPS.

I was at Von Steuben for 18 years—the same amount of time I spent teaching in private schools—and served as a union delegate and as a member of the CTU’s High School Steering Committee. In addition, our CTU contracts with the Chicago Board of Education mandated a Professional Problems Committee and a Professional Personnel Leadership Committee, which together ensured that teachers and staff had a voice in how our schools are run. Topics at the time included discipline procedures, teacher evaluations, late homework policy, school improvement plans and funding for various departments and programs. Working with the principal and the Local School Council, our objective as CTU members was to make the school the best that it could possibly be. Our union guaranteed through our contract that teachers and staff have a voice. As a result, our students benefited.

Teachers and staff thinking about quitting the union should realize that the gains made possible by previous generations are not etched in stone. Our guaranteed benefits expire once our contract is up for renewal, and they all need to be renegotiated. Only a strong union can guarantee that its members will be respected. And the union is strong only if we all stand together as active dues-paying members.

Decades ago, I’m sure that the original members of the CTU wondered if they could make the impossible possible. As a senior who pays retiree dues, I will be forever grateful that our union is successful. It is my hope that current members will respect the legacy of our forebears by continuing to support the union with dues and the advocacy that our contract guarantees. Only a strong union can preserve what we’ve already won, and only a strong union can move forward to make working and educational conditions even better.

In solidarity with my union, forever.

Larry Vigon is a retired CPS high school teacher and proud CTU member.

This article appears in the September 2018 issue of the Chicago Union Teacher.