Almost 8,000 West Virginia School Service Workers Join AFT

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West Virginia's independent union of more than 7,800 school service personnel has affiliated with the AFT and AFT-West Virginia. The two state organizations together represent about 15,000 workers, and, if approved by AFT's executive council in September, the agreement will make the AFT the largest union in West Virginia.

The West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA) executive board voted unanimously on Aug. 23 to join AFT-West Virginia and the national AFT. "This affiliation vote is the culmination of a long and fruitful informal partnership with AFT-West Virginia," says Jacqueline Long, WVSSPA's president.

"This affiliation benefits both WVSSPA and AFT members," says AFT president Randi Weingarten, adding that together "we will help achieve our collective goals of justice, respect and dignity in our workplaces and our communities for our members and those we serve."

The past three state legislative sessions have brought several wins for school support workers. Earlier this year, the powerful AFT-WV/WVSSPA coalition succeeded in closing a relatively new pension plan that wasn't working very well and transferring employees back to the traditional pension system. [See earlier story.] Two years ago, the teachers and service personnel also joined forces and, exerting a little pressure in the form of a one-day walkout, won a 3.5 percent across-the-board salary increase. Support workers hadn't had a raise in 20 years.

These wins and others convinced rank-and-file WVSSPA members that their union, with its strong history, would become even stronger if it affiliated with the AFT.

"It has been a process of building trust as well as them realizing how much more powerful they are together—how much more effective," says Judy Hale, president of AFT-West Virginia and an AFT vice president. "It just makes sense."

Because there's no collective bargaining in West Virginia, most gains for school employees must be obtained through the state Legislature, including pay scale, seniority, benefits, job descriptions and job bids. And because WVSSPA and the AFT have been so proactive in working with state lawmakers, "We have stuff in the state code that you can't write in contracts anymore. It's really pretty incredible," says WVSSPA executive secretary Bob Brown, who's been instrumental in building the coalition between WVSSPA and AFT-West Virginia for the past 15 years. For instance, he says, bus drivers are paid full-time salaries but can earn extra pay for making midday runs. In addition, Brown said that many local chapters have been able to negotiate local pay raises and increased benefits due to the strength of the coalition.

"WVSSPA has been very successful in helping its members with workplace issues and securing benefits, even without the right to bargain," says AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson, who chairs the AFT's paraprofessional and school-related personnel (PSRP) program and policy council. "It has so much to offer other school service members in states that face the same challenges."

The affiliation vote brought kudos all around. The AFT's organizing director Phil Kugler called the vote "a tremendous victory, which will strengthen WVSSPA, AFT-West Virginia, and indeed, the entire labor movement in West Virginia."

Both WVSSPA and AFT-West Virginia will retain their autonomy and identity, and will continue to work together on issues of common interest. "This partnership will allow us to remain WVSSPA—today, tomorrow and in the future," Long says.

Next, state leaders will plan follow-up visits to the 37 counties where WVSSPA and AFT-WV already have established coalitions, says Hale, followed by new outreach in the remaining counties. After that, the union plans more focused work on the state level, including helping develop a stronger political voice for WVSSPA, which Hale calls "a sleeping giant."

August 25, 2008