How activism gives us voice, strengthens our communities and keeps us on the job
PSRPs with a plan
“If you’re so smart, why don’t you come up with a plan?”
That was the challenge thrown at members of the Jefferson County AFT in Alabama this spring after they questioned a decision to lay off 227 PSRPs. Members responded by coming up with a plan that not only preserved all the jobs but laid the groundwork for well-earned raises.
Here’s how it went down: When a new school superintendent arrived in Jefferson County a little over a year ago, union leaders started meeting with him right away, and it wasn’t long before they caught a whiff of impending layoffs. Union members met in February to plan for contingencies, including offering each other such practical steps as putting off buying a car or a house.
“We’re kind of like weather forecasters,” says local President Marrianne Hayward. “We don’t know this is coming, but we want to be prepared.”
By March, layoff rumors had circulated through the local media and the superintendent was “super furious” with the union for sounding the alarm, Hayward says. Critics implied that AFT members were becoming hysterical over nothing.
Sure enough, though, the school board on March 26 voted 3-2 for reductions in force, with a list of targeted PSRPs to be issued the next day. Classroom paraprofessionals and office support staff were called to the district office. No friend or representative was allowed to accompany them. Two sheriff’s deputies were posted, creating an even more ominous environment.
“With spring break scheduled for the next week,” Hayward says, “these people were going to have a million questions and nobody there to answer them.”
Not only would the layoffs be bad for students, but they would create terrible hardships for families. One PSRP was shell-shocked: Her husband is on partial disability, and she is the economic mainstay of her family. Another had scheduled her last chemotherapy for July, but employees’ jobs and healthcare benefits would expire on June 30. A few affected PSRPs were only six months from retirement.
“There were just a lot of heartache stories like that,” Hayward remembers.
The Jefferson County AFT’s 2,000 members immediately began calling the school board, scheduling meetings and asking questions. As the calendar rolled into April, issues surfaced: Why only these two job classes? Had any consideration been given to hardship cases? Was the district in such dire straits that it really needed to save $13 million right away? If so, why was the district’s top financial officer given a $10,000 raise?
That’s when the superintendent jumped in with an invitation that union members would have appreciated at the outset:
“If you’re so smart, why don’t you come up with a plan?”
Our members were happy to oblige, even though the district declined to provide any financial information. Within days, the union posted a four-point plan on its Facebook page:
- Rescind the layoffs.
- Hire an outside auditor to examine the school district’s finances.
- Appoint a financial committee to explore and recommend alternative cost savings.
- Fire the district’s chief financial officer, who had approved all previous expenditures in addition to recommending her own raise.
With the union’s proposal in hand, the school board voted to appoint a financial task force. Each board member appointed one member to the task force, which included union representatives.
The task force found $8 million in cuts without laying off a single PSRP. In late May, the school board adopted the revised budget. And by the end of June, it voted to provide raises for every classified employee.
A little goes a long way
You might be amazed at how easy it is to bring new members into the union fold. Consider Tim Taylor, treasurer of the Portland Federation of School Professionals, who got nine co-workers to sign up earlier this year simply by stuffing fliers into their mailboxes at school.
He’s quick to point out that he didn’t even design the fliers, which list 47 benefits of membership across the top and provide a membership application across the bottom. In the upper right corner, Taylor photocopied a note with his name on it. “I just added a little something,” he says.
As the building representative, Taylor is part of AFT-Oregon’s push to sign up “fair share” payers in the PSRP affiliate, Local 111.
In Oregon, all public employees pay their fair share of the union’s cost of negotiating and administering contracts. This system could change next year, though, if Oregon voters decide to become a so-called right-to-work state, where employees no longer would pay their fair share. That’s why people like Tim Taylor and Belinda Reagan, the local president, decided to go full bore in signing up members. For between $4 and $10 per paycheck, fee payers can step up to membership. With that comes a voice in the workplace, union voting rights, financial counseling and a slew of discounts.
“Fair share is just a few dollars less than our dues, so we decided this was a perfect opportunity,” Reagan says.
And did they ever seize that opportunity. They started the membership drive in mid-February by sending a letter to every fee payer, an effort that brought in 60 to 70 new members. Next, they decided to shoot for 111 new members (Get it? Local 111) and sent out emails. By July 1, the local hit 153 new members, blasting past its goal. It now has about 700 members.
“That’s mammoth for us,” Reagan says.
For his part, Taylor enjoys talking with recruits who bring him their applications, adding: “I still have a lot to learn.”
Doing what’s right
Nobody ever promised that becoming an effective site representative was easy, but it can be deeply rewarding. That’s the experience of Genia Scott, an after-school educator who makes it her mission to bring fair share payers on board as members of the Berkeley (Calif.) Council of Classified Employees. Her co-workers sometimes think they’re members because money is deducted from their paychecks. That money isn’t dues, though. It’s a fee for their share of bargaining and administering their contract.
Scott is intensely proud of her job. Each day after school, she works mainly with kindergartners on colors and patterns by having them make lanyards and beadwork. She teaches them sequencing (first, second, third), the difference between uppercase and lowercase, how to tell time, and how to count by fives and 10s. Her job is about academic enrichment for all.
Scott takes her union role equally seriously. Although she understands why PSRPs might not want to sit in a meeting, she is adamant about the importance of involvement—at a minimum, knowing what’s in your contract. “You’ve got to come to the meetings,” she exhorts members. “That’s how you find out information.”
As a result of Scott’s engagement, her school has only one fee payer left among two dozen members. Scott is constantly enlisting new helpers, gauging their interest and readiness. When another school doesn’t have a building rep, she “branches out” to help members there. In return, they show up for big meetings and rallies.
Not that it’s so easy to get involved. PSRPs have varied schedules, some hold down other jobs and some live far away. Scott tries to catch them in the mornings, and if she stays late, she can reach almost everyone.
Partly, she is driven by curiosity. She goes the extra mile to solve problems, in the course of which she learns the ins and outs of the contract. But mostly, she is driven by a sense of fairness—that contract provisions are there for a reason.
“If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong,” she says. By building the strength of our union, she aims to make sure it’s right.