Where We Stand

PSRPs, rising together to the challenge

By Lorretta Johnson

IT’S BEEN A LONG JOURNEY since the day we had a massive snowstorm in Baltimore, soon after I started my career in the classroom as a paraprofessional. Teachers were sent home, and my co-workers and I were left alone to keep the students safe. At the time, we earned $2.25 per hour and received no benefits. And that day, we weren’t paid for our extra time or our important work. That day, that snowstorm, that disrespect—they inspired me to launch my first organizing drive. Now, 50 years later, I look back with pride at the union we have built together.

For me, my union has enabled me to build a career. It has given me a voice. It has helped me to be in control of my own destiny. But none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been engaged in my union.

As we embark on our 100th year as the American Federation of Teachers, and look back on a proud past that has included so many great steps forward for us as workers and for our students and our communities, we must also look forward to the challenges that are real, stark and just ahead.

Challenges like the U.S. Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association that, if the court rules against us, could make our efforts to support working families more difficult. But we know that if we are prepared, our call to reclaim the promise of public education will be stronger.

Challenges like the threat to our job security that we face when national, state and local entities engage in unnecessary funding cuts. But we know that if we are united and speak with one voice, we can ensure that school support staff—from paraprofessionals in the classroom to school secretaries, security officers and all classified employees—are recognized for their contributions to our children’s education and are an important part of the school team.

Challenges like no access to the high-quality professional development we need to serve our students. But we know that if we demand to be treated like the professionals we are, we will be better prepared, have access to high-quality job-related training and be equipped to meet the individual needs of our students.

Just look at what we accomplished with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. Because our members spoke up and spoke out—walking the halls of Congress, sending letters and emails, making phone calls—the standards created 13 years ago to help professionalize our profession will be maintained.

Back when I started my career in the classroom, training was largely by trial and error. I was one of the lucky ones—I worked with great teachers who helped me be my best for my kids. Now, because of the requirements that we fought for, my sisters and brothers in the Baltimore City schools have a sophisticated and comprehensive professional development program that provides them with high-quality training to support their students’ learning.

None of this happened by accident. None of this happened because we sat back and stayed silent. And now as we face the challenges that lie ahead, we must raise our voices to flex our collective power. Our union, our contract, give us that voice. But it’s up to us to use it.

In Jefferson County, Ala., our members used that voice to stave off the district’s plan to lay off 227 paraprofessionals and school-related personnel.

They did this by putting together a plan that forced the district to revamp its finances and make cuts that didn’t result in layoffs. In the end, the school board voted to adopt a revised budget that not only included no layoffs, but also provided raises for every classified employee.

In Peoria, Ill., our members used that voice to tell agency fee payers—workers in a unionized workplace who aren’t members of the union—that “we need you.” Within two months, the number of agency fee payers had dropped by 60 percent because our fellow employees understood the importance of having a voice through their union.

And in the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., our members used that voice to demand a reset on federal education policy, with PSRPs at the table. “Do not leave us out of the equation,” wrote Janet Eberhardt, a member of the United Educators of San Francisco. “We need the skills to fully assist in teaching and learning. We do the work and we must be supported in the reauthorization.”

I’ll never forget the day that my union gave me a voice. That feeling has driven me, all these years, to make sure that working families across the country have that voice and the power it creates. As we face the challenges ahead, we need our collective power more than ever—for ourselves, for our students, for our families and for our communities. Together, we will reclaim the promise of America.

PSRP Reporter, Winter 2015 Download PDF (1.03 MB)
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