Just one year ago, Rodney Watson joined the Louisiana Retired Teachers Association (LRTA) as executive director after decades of experience working in state government and the Louisiana school system. He was ready to hit the ground running at a time when the retirement system was deeply underfunded and attacks were coming to switch teachers from pension plans to defined contribution accounts.
Rodney says that his first order of business was to listen to his members and develop an action plan.
“I wanted to hear directly from members, and they told me their top priority was to protect their retirement benefits,” Rodney said. “I knew that instinctively, but I also knew that we needed to flip that goal into a broader message that would speak to the public and legislators.”
Rodney worked with staff and members to craft a plan that would re-frame the retirement debate as a discussion about how to provide the best education for children in the state. A major factor in delivering high quality education in Louisiana is recruiting and retaining high quality teachers – and pensions play a key role in that effort. That re-framing was at the heart of LRTA’s action plan and message, which are outlined in this PowerPoint presentation.
Another important strategy Rodney employed was moving from an emotional debate to a fact-driven debate. “I’m a data geek, and I knew that powerful data would be a key driver in persuading lawmakers. Of course we need to tell the human side of the pension story, but we needed to couple that with facts and figures,” Rodney said.
Working with NRTA and other organizations, he compiled key data that supported LRTA’s legislative goals – from the costs of lower salaries of state teachers to the costs of switching from a pension to a defined contribution-type plan.
Rodney then traveled the state to train and educate members on the plan and messages so that they would be empowered and energized to serve as effective advocates. “I can do my job and lobby the legislature, but it only works if our members are working in tandem as activists. And did they ever!”
Throughout the legislative session, members filled hearing rooms and contacted legislators in record numbers to weigh in with facts on education and retirement security. LRTA used tried and true communication methods to activate members and reach lawmakers with their messages, but also used new methods, including social media.
“We hope to further expand our use of communication tools like social media and texting,” Rodney explained. “It works with legislative staff, and we know that digital outreach will be an effective means to reach new members to grow our membership ranks.”
Ultimately, LRTA’s action plan and data-driven messages resulted in the defeat of 16 unfavorable bills, retaining of the pension plan and achieving a cost of living adjustment. Some news reports even called LRTA “a powerful retirement group.” These legislative successes entailed careful engagement with legislators, and also required close collaboration with other organizations in the state with similar goals.
Rodney says his take-away learnings from year one on the job are simple: listen to your members, quickly turn that input into an action plan, educate and energize your membership base to help deliver that action plan, collaborate with other like-minded organizations, over-communicate, and thank your members.
“LRTA members won these battles. They were motivated and energized, and they delivered on the plan we developed together. Now, I’m actively and regularly recognizing their efforts and expressing my appreciation. Together, we achieved much in one short year, but we have more challenges down the road. We all must maintain our focus and energy so we can sustain and even expand on our success,” Rodney said.
Looking forward, Rodney says the LRTA has more in the works – launching a more interactive and fresh web site, rolling out a membership drive and focusing on community outreach programs. Stay tuned!