To form a more perfect union

For school and college support staff, our history shows how unity makes us stronger.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the AFT over the coming year, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel have much to be proud of. What follows is a look at the origins of our union and how it grew when PSRPs brought their talents and voices to the AFT. 

The reason for a union is solidarity, but early days of the AFT saw separation, even segregation, among our first locals. There were male locals and female locals, black locals and white locals, elementary and high school locals. 

Many of the first affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers faced withering intimidation—so much so that a few collapsed after their inception nearly a century ago. The AFT affiliate in Gary, Ind., for example, was established at the same time as our original band of hearty Chicagoans on May 1, 1916, but disbanded under pressure from a steel strike. The original Oklahoma City federation, likewise launched on May Day 1916, foundered through “lack of interest and courage.” The Punxsutawney, Pa., federation, created about a year later, perished at the hands of school board opposition, and now its town is known mainly for a groundhog. 

Another local, this one in Illinois, had the opposite problem: Its school board was said to be “too friendly” and many couldn’t see the need for a union. A pay increase likewise killed our local in the coal town of Shamokin, Pa. One affiliate in Boston disbanded over disparities in men’s and women’s pay. 

Only when Chicago’s small, distinctive unions began uniting in the AFT did they make themselves stronger. Our heartiest members hung tight and in 1937 merged four local unions into one, AFT Local 1, the Chicago Teachers Union. 

The School Secretaries of Chicago, organized in 1930 as AFT Local 224, were the first PSRPs (paraprofessionals and school-related personnel) to merge into Local 1. Today, the ranks of Chicago PSRPs range from payroll clerks to technology coordinators.

New York City

When it came to organizing New York’s classroom paraprofessionals in the late 1960s, United Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker, later to head the AFT, made it clear that the union must welcome all school employees, regardless of race or level of education, and must push for a “career ladder” so that members could advance their education, leading to job equity across school staff.

Some teachers stood in the way of the paras, and some paras balked at joining a group they perceived as racist. Addressing teachers who resisted the entry of the mostly black, Hispanic and less-educated paraprofessionals into the UFT, Shanker threatened to quit—the only time he ever did so. He said he would not want to be part of a union that rejected the paras.

With this vision, Shanker fought a tide of racism and distrust to call for a vote on accepting paras into the union. Voting began in June, and by the time ballots were fully counted in November, the paras had won. Shanker later called this his proudest moment and “the greatest thing the union ever did.” Within a month, the UFT laid out demands for a big wage hike, pensions, vacations and holiday pay for the paras, most of whom were paid only about $2 an hour.

The union and the school board then began negotiations that produced a
140 percent pay boost and major new benefits for paras, including professional development. Within 25 years, the career ladder had helped more than 8,000 paras develop into teachers, making it the largest source of minority teachers in the city and one of the most successful affirmative action programs in the nation.

“Many PSRPs across the country are not in the AFT and there are many of them who do not have any effective organization fighting for them,” Shanker said years later, noting that only a union can bargain for regular salaries, pensions and benefits. “You do not get those benefits without a good, strong organization, an organization that believes in not just doing a little better, but really believes in transforming the role of school-related personnel and understanding that in a school, nobody should be a second-class citizen.”

Baltimore

Maryland is another place where AFT PSRPs made history. On a late summer day in 1963, a young mother named Lorretta Johnson (pictured above right) boarded a bus in Baltimore with her 6-year-old son, Leonard Jr., and rode to the March on Washington. “I went because I needed to be part of changing America for my sons,” she says.

For that march, our union helped mobilize 250,000 Americans. Their collective voice, together with the voices of allies and champions, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other progressive programs. “At the time, we weren’t thinking of the march as part of history,” Johnson says. “For us, it was about responsibility and accountability.”

Johnson is still fighting for a better America. Inspired by her mentor, Al Shanker, she has gone from paraprofessional to union leader to secretary-treasurer of the AFT. These days she serves as treasurer for the
A. Philip Randolph Institute, named for an elder statesman of the civil rights movement. And in a single arc from that march, Johnson now chairs our task force on racial equity.

She understood from the beginning how the civil rights and labor movements walk hand in hand, and she used that understanding to help build an entire division of the AFT, starting with paraprofessionals in Baltimore. 

Reflecting on the importance of education, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) praised Johnson in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper in 2010. Calling her “a woman who exemplifies much of what we should be learning from our history,” Cummings said she “never stops reminding us that the education of our children is the single most important force in building our future prosperity.”

San Francisco

San Francisco has earned its reputation as a good labor town. Chartered by the AFT in 1919, the San Francisco Federation of Teachers has played roles in both the labor and civil rights movements.

Member activism led to a paraprofessionals chapter in 1972. Despite a challenge in 1985, when a competing group sought to decertify the local as the sole bargaining agent for paras, the AFT affiliate won by a ratio of nearly 2 votes to 1. The union went on to negotiate a “longevity” program, which gives permanent status to more than a thousand of the most senior paras and provides them with paid vacations, movement on the salary schedule and district-paid dental benefits. Later, the union struck an agreement with the school district, setting up a career ladder in which the union and district enable paraprofessionals to complete college, earn credentials and become teachers.

Inspiring our future

Nobody understands the need to know AFT history better than Lorretta Johnson. To keep the middle class moving forward, she says, we need to know what it took to build a middle class in the first place. “Americans have to understand what labor has given to them,” she says, and “America has to know that the labor movement is not going to die because there will always be new leaders emerging.”

PSRP Reporter, Fall 2015 Download PDF (2.59 MB)
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