PSRPs: ‘You’ve got to tell your story’

Meeting near a wall of windows with a beautiful view of the sky at the top of the convention center, well over 100 members of the AFT’s Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel division came together for a meeting that featured whooping and hollering at developments both good and bad over the past two years.

PSRP divisional meeting

PSRP PPC chair Shelvy Abrams led off the session with an homage to her mentor, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Lorretta Johnson, who acknowledged members’ big love by saying, “You are the people who made Lorretta Johnson. It was you who made me who I am.”

School and college support staff have been essential to keeping their facilities running during the pandemic. Abrams warned members to brace for hard times ahead, saying that PSRPs are usually the first to get the ax when budgets are cut. And she cited AFT President Randi Weingarten’s keynote address warning of authoritarians taking over the country unless everyone gets out the vote.

Next, Carl Williams, president of the CFT Council of Classified Employees and an AFT vice president, updated members on workforce shortages. Williams is a co-chair of the AFT’s Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force. “We deserve to earn a living wage, feel safe and feel respect. I believe there should be a national holiday celebrating PSRPs,” he said to an eruption of cheers, adding that support staff need insurance cards in their wallets, money in the bank and respect from the community.

Several members also shared updates on challenges specific to PSRPs and how their locals are addressing them.

Sandy Thompson Wallace, who heads four PSRP locals in Alaska, reported on how support staff partnered with teachers and other unions, including the Teamsters, to apply pressure for a contract. “Get political and get your vote on,” she said.

Workplace violence appears to be plaguing PSRPs more than ever. Teri Jones, a vice president of the Oregon School Employees Association, described how, even after a state law passed in 2017 in response to OSEA’s Work Shouldn’t Hurt campaign, the remedies are still inadequate. Sometimes, Williams observed, school districts take advantage of paras’ compassion.

But the news wasn’t all downbeat. Veronica Hernandez, president of Socorro AFT in Texas, aka “the little local that could,” described hefty pay raises her union bargained: 6 percent for PSRPs, with a retention bonus of $2,500 and 100 percent of health insurance paid.

But despite numerous contract wins—including one with a raise as high as 30 percent—the PSRPs said they still don’t get basic respect.

“It’s really terrible when we have to beg for somebody to respect the work we do,” Williams said. “We were the faces of the district when nobody else was there.” PSRPs must comprehend their own strength, he added. “Nobody’s going to ‘get it’ until we get it. The kids get it. They adore us. They love us. … But the world needs to get it.”

Abrams contributed several stories to the mix. The starkest was how it took 50 years for paraprofessionals in New York City to become a part of the city’s pension system. Teachers were automatically enrolled; paras thought they were but were not. The state legislature would pass a bill and the governor would refuse to sign it. Finally, on Oct. 29, 2021, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the bill. “So please,” Abrams implored, “you’ve got to tell your story.”

To wrap up the divisional meeting, Bernie Kemp of the Broward (Fla.) Teachers Union led the group in a brief discussion of four PSRP-related resolutions on designating and celebrating a national PSRP day, fighting for living wages, demanding safe schools and colleges and providing school meals for all.

[Annette Licitra/photo by Pamela Wolfe]