Putting the U in Union

Together, PSRPs take problem solving into our own hands

SCHOOL SUPPORT STAFF think about everything we do through the lens of whether it’s good for our students, schools, families and communities. We know that if we want to change things for the better, sometimes it takes more than keeping our heads down and doing our jobs. It takes union activism.

Luckily, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, by the very nature of our work, know how to solve problems and engage with our communities. And luckily, such deep engagement can be fun and rewarding.

Here are four inspiring stories of PSRPs from AFT affiliates around the country—Oregon, Ohio, California and Illinois—who have demonstrated how you put the “u” in union.

Our dough: Oregon

School support workers rallied in Oregon this winter for a higher minimum wage. The Oregon School Employees Association supports legislation that would gradually increase the state minimum wage to $15 per hour. OSEA members turned out in force this January, joining a crowd of about 500 at the Capitol in Salem, because raising the wage would lift thousands of families out of poverty.

“There are many reasons for us to increase Oregon’s minimum wage. In fact, there are 200,000 reasons—that’s the number of Oregon children who live in households below the federal poverty line,” OSEA President and AFT Vice President Tim Stoelb told the crowd. “The majority of OSEA members work in K-12 schools. Our members see the struggle of working families to make ends meet reflected in the faces of their students every day. I stand before you to ask all Oregonians to demand an end to an employer’s ability to legally pay poverty wages.”

The rally sprang from an OSEA survey in which 1,500 members weighed in on the effects of poverty in their communities. But they didn’t stop with the #FightFor15 rally.

On Presidents Day, members returned to the state Capitol to support paid sick leave for all working people in Oregon. If passed, thousands of workers, including OSEA members, would be able to earn and accumulate at least 56 hours of paid sick leave per year.

But better pay isn’t the only kind of dough members are raising. In Baker, a community in east Oregon, members were looking to start a union-sponsored service project, so they created FEED (Feed Everyone Every Day). They round up donated loaves of bread to help fill the bottomless stomachs of middle schoolers. The bread is used three ways: to help students get a substantive breakfast; to make PB&J sandwiches for kids who take part in after-school programs and are still at school around 5:30; and to be tucked into grocery bags going home with kids to tide them over for the weekend.

“We feed the minds of our students every day” is how Ma’Lena Wirth, a special education paraprofessional and chapter leader, explains members’ motivation. “Now let’s help feed their bodies.”

She tells of a well-to-do mom who donated a ton of bread in gratitude after her daughter received a sandwich after school, and a community leader who, wherever he goes, can count on “somebody handing him a check” for the union’s dough-raiser. Cash donations—which over the past few months have outstripped loaves of bread—allow FEED to buy fresh food. Contributions are rolling in from the Lions and Rotary clubs, the Baker County Community Literacy Coalition and others. In December, OSEA members took a month off because they had enough bread stashed in church freezers.  

At the end of this school year, the unionists of Baker (yes, they are aware of how cute that name is) plan to challenge members to fill a whole school bus with bread to cover summer programs.

Our leadership: Ohio

Oliver Collins had been in the workforce for decades when he came to the Toledo schools in 2002, eventually becoming a full-time paraprofessional for students with multiple disabilities. He loves serving on the Toledo Federation of Teachers’ political action committee among paras, teachers and retirees.

Last year, with elections coming on, the union’s political action team met monthly to discuss state education funding, candidates for public office and issues like child trafficking. Committee members also screened candidates, using surveys, forums and meet-and-greets to help members get a handle on how education-friendly the candidates were. One of the best questions, Collins says, is: “Does anyone in your family attend public schools?”

Collins manned phone banks and helped host a meet-the-candidate event, the TFT Tailgate Party, in the union parking lot. His political activism was so meaningful that Collins applied for a “Paraprofessionals as Leaders” program sponsored by the Toledo federation and the AFT. As part of the program, nine PSRPs are selected to attend Saturday trainings once a month for five months. Each member will request a project ranging from bullying to student testing. The Common Core has piqued Collins’ interest for his own project. In addition, the nine leaders in training will create a group community engagement project that Toledo’s hundreds of paraprofessionals can take part in.

Our clout: California

Sometimes it takes an injustice to spur membership, as when 60 unsung heroes flexed their muscle last year and joined the Lawndale Federation of Classified Employees.

Noon duty supervisors served as at-will
employees and worked only a few hours a day at the district’s six elementary and two middle schools near Los Angeles, but the final straw, according to Carl Williams, a custodian and the local’s president, was not getting the 4 percent raise that all the other classified and certified workers received.

“They didn’t get the raise because they were not part of the bargaining unit,” Williams says. “They were afraid to speak up because they’re at-will employees.”

Having organized themselves, the noon duty supervisors now will negotiate a contract. The Lawndale school district has new funding, including $90,000 for noon duty supervisors, whom Williams calls “the unsung heroes” in schoolyards across America.
“They are the mediators, the referees, the listening ears on the playground,” he says. “They really are the first line of defense for these kids.”

And because they acted together to join the union, they now have a voice.

Our training: Illinois

Activism means saying yes and following through. Take two PSRPs, for example, who built up their professionalism by enrolling in AFT train-the-trainer courses a few years ago. They’ve trained colleagues in skills like managing student behavior and workplace safety.

Last fall, the two were asked to teach high school and college students about workplace safety through a federal training program. They said yes. “We took a leap of faith,” says Rendy Hahn, secretary for the Cahokia, Ill., school district’s maintenance department. “I’ve never been in a classroom. I never work with kids face to face.”

Hahn, who belongs to the Cahokia Federation of Teachers, and Connie McKenna, a paraprofessional and member of the Pontiac-William Holliday Federation of Teachers, teamed up to train about 30 students who work on set production and media at the Village Theatre in Centreville, a small community between East St. Louis and Cahokia.

The theater, founded by jazz great Eddie Fisher and run by his widow, gives young people a chance to learn job skills, and the AFT training last October aimed to keep them safe—both at the theater and at their other after-school jobs. “In certain industries, training is sort of an afterthought,” McKenna says. “Sometimes employers only give training if they know they’re going to be inspected.”

“The kids were wonderful,” Hahn says. “They had all kinds of questions. It’s very enjoyable when you get that ‘aha’ moment.” She’s hoping to continue training after she retires. That speaks to her professionalism as a school employee, a unionist and a mom—her desire to help students “stop and think a little bit, keep them safe.”

Our union: AFT

These members’ accomplishments are moving and meaningful, but not miraculous. They’re the kind of success any AFT member can achieve. In fact, you may be doing something similar in your union. If so, we want to hear about it.

Staff at these four locals started out with baby steps, asked for help, worked together and started solving problems together. Like other AFT members across the country, they understood that we all are the union—that union begins with “u.”

PSRP Reporter, Spring 2015 Download PDF (913.38 KB)
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