It was a time for solidarity, and from hundreds of first-time attendees all the way to our union’s top officers, everyone at this year’s PSRP conference showed how tightly they’re sticking with the union.
PSRP Chair Shelvy Abrams and AFT President Randi Weingarten showered love on members who enable schools and colleges to run smoothly. Abrams, who leads the paraprofessional chapter of the United Federation of Teachers in New York, gave a special shout-out to support staff in higher education.
Sporting her “Make America Union Again” ball cap, Weingarten led hundreds of PSRPs in a rousing cheer while she read off all the ways support staff are the backbone of their schools and colleges: “We clean it. We cook it. We fix it. We drive it. We paint it. We type it. We schedule it. We plant it. We file it. We support, love and believe in our students! We are the PSRPs of the AFT!”
No school system operates in any meaningful way without the work of school support staff, Weingarten said. And yet, that work is invisible, performed by unsung heroes—until now. A few weeks ago, a new federal RISE Act was signed into law, creating an awards program that specifically recognizes paraprofessionals and school-related personnel.
Weingarten asked everyone to look for colleagues who should receive the new award. “I ask you to do that,” she said, “because half the battle is making sure our members are seen and heard.” Just as they do in their schools and on their campuses, she said, PSRPs got members of Congress on opposite sides of the aisle to stop bickering, come together and make good things happen.
“That is a miracle,” she said. “But I’m not surprised because you make possible what is impossible to do alone. Look around this room. You bring a critical voice to your schools, to your communities and to this country.”
Between general sessions and workshops, attendees also heard from Tega Toney, a vice president of AFT-West Virginia and a veteran of that state’s groundbreaking school strikes, which have set off a wave of actions across the nation. She described union members who took part in “Fed-Up Fridays” and stood in snow and rain on picket lines and at rallies. “They were chanting till their throats burned,” she said. And they won.
But more than anything, Toney wanted service personnel, as they’re known in West Virginia, to hear this: “You are the building blocks for our schools. Where would we be without you? You run our schools, and if anybody doesn’t think so, then they’ve never met a school secretary. Any success that a teacher has in the classroom is a direct result of what you do.”
Sounding what would become a theme of the conference, she invited PSRPs to become union leaders. “You won’t get an invitation to become a leader. You have to step up,” she said. “Let your union be your North Star.”
This year’s Albert Shanker Pioneer Award went to Sandra Davis, PSRP leader of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Davis’ greatest accomplishments are stepping up whenever she’s needed and fighting for working people. When she saw a need for more special education paraprofessionals, she became one. She saw a need for professional development, so she planned and conducted workshops for her union—workshops like supporting medically fragile children. Then she saw that her state and national federations needed her, and she stepped into new roles there.
In presenting her with the PSRP division’s highest honor, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, a former paraprofessional herself, thanked Davis for her strong will and determination—the same qualities Johnson is famous for herself.
Spreading the word
PSRP leaders met before the conference, sharing ideas big and small, from tips on engaging members to visions for building union power.
Jeff Grider, president of the Portland (Ore.) Community College Federation of Classified Employees, suggested opening local union events to members’ families. “Then we don’t have to repeat the speeches,” he said. “Pay for them to come to the banquet, encourage them to come to the meet-and-greet. We could all be partners. It’s just a matter of reaching out.”
Shellye Davis, co-president of the Hartford (Conn.) Federation of Paraprofessionals, observed that sometimes the reason members never step up is simply that they were never asked. “We need to look for the leader in every single member,” she said.
PSRPs don’t have to remind each other how valuable their work is, said Carl Williams, president of the Lawndale (Calif.) Federation of Classified Employees. What they do need is adequate funding. “We need help from the outside,” he said, pointing to the AFT’s Fund Our Future campaign. “We’re on a hamster wheel, and we’ve been here for a long time. If our work is not appreciated and we are not recognized, we need to figure out how to fix that.”
You have to demand respect, said David Gray, president of the Oklahoma City Federation of Classified Employees, pointing to its coalition of 35 labor, faith and civic leaders. “Have an informational picket. Call the news media. Raise some hell. Our folks are up for it.” Last year, he said, members went to the bargaining table to bring a new group of school technicians into the union. The only one who said no was the superintendent. So what did members do? “We took her ‘no’ to the coalition. We just lit the fire,” Gray said. “And guess what? Two months later, that superintendent was gone and those people are in our unit now.”
“It’s not the union,” Yolanda Fisher, vice president of Alliance/AFT in Texas, reminded the group. “It’s us.”
The PSRP chair agreed. When the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to public sector labor unions last year, our opponents “thought people would walk out of the union,” Abrams said. But instead, “what they did was set fire in our bones.”
Abrams advises members to do this: In the cafeteria, don’t let support staff and teachers sit separately, and don’t let them act separately. “We can’t do that anymore. We can’t wait for others,” she said. “We are the union. Take it back and use it, and don’t be afraid.”
[Annette Licitra/photos by Alexandra Palombo]