Teachers around the country have been schooling us all with their strike wave. But schools depend on more than just classroom teachers. Recently paraeducators, a vital—and criminally underpaid—part of the public school workforce, are starting to rise up too.
Paraeducators assist individual students with a range of learning issues, including physical disabilities, problems focusing, and difficulties managing emotions. They aid classroom teachers and are often called on to provide support in managing the day-to-day of school life for these students.
Their work is essential to students’ success, but they are often paid poverty wages, get no paid vacation, and have no say in the decisions that affect the students they work with.
Teacher Revolt Inspires
“Paras have seen nationally how educators are moving into struggle, and realizing that we don’t need to take the conditions we’ve been facing,” said Margaret Whittier-Ferguson, a paraeducator in Somerville, Massachusetts who is chair of her union’s paraprofessional contract team.
Those conditions often include dealing with physical violence from troubled students, being moved from classroom to classroom with no time to prepare, substituting for absent teachers (without increased compensation), and being expected to work beyond their paid hours.
“I think paras are a long way off from getting the respect for the work they do in the classrooms—more often than not with the most vulnerable children in this country,” said Wendy MacMillan, a paraeducator in Brookline, Massachusetts.
In too many so-called “wall-to-wall” locals, where paraeducators and teachers are in the same union, paras’ voices are not fully respected at the negotiating table and unions have put their demands on the back burner.
Organizing paraeducators presents challenges. Many work more than one job, so it can be difficult for them to attend meetings. Their work inside the school is often independent of each other, they do not have their own classrooms, and their daily schedules can be erratic and ever-changing.
But three examples from Massachusetts highlight what can happen when paraeducators are welcomed to the negotiating team and in the contract campaign.
The Brookline Educators Union represents three units—teachers, administrators, and paraeducators. In previous contract fights, BEU had won just cause and paid holidays for paras. In their most recent negotiations, they took up the demand for bigger wage increases than they had won in the past.
MacMillan was new to the negotiating team and excited about the solidarity that members from the three units showed in developing demands. So she was shocked when the School Committee, with whom the union negotiates, was dismissive of para concerns.
Union demands for 3 percent raises for paras were met with offers of 1 percent from the district. MacMillan caucused with her team.
“When they [the School Committee] came back, I just stood up and told them that their raise was a joke,” she said. “It was mere pennies in a paycheck for paraprofessionals and I wasn’t interested in sticking around anymore to be further disrespected. I picked up my stuff and I walked out.”
BEU exposed this disrespect publicly. On Saturdays teachers and paras went downtown to flyer and share their stories. At a townwide pancake breakfast they brought blue union balloons for every child.
And paraeducators won their 3 percent annual raises.
No More Gag Rule
As in Brookline, what worked in negotiations for paraprofessionals in Northampton was exposing the work paras actually do.
The union’s decision to open bargaining to members of all six of its units helped this effort. Previous bargaining between the School Committee and the union was done under ground rules that forbade bargainers to tell members about the details of negotiations.
These bargaining units included non-teacher staff known as Education Support Professionals (ESPs): not only paraeducators but also administrative assistants and custodians.
The School Committee was shocked when the newly elected leaders of the Northampton Association of School Employees insisted on opening up bargaining, according to Paula Rigano-Murray, a 15-year paraeducator and co-coordinator of the union’s para unit.
“The School Committee brought their ground rules, including a gag rule,” she said. “We caucused and said, ‘We are not going to sign the ground rules.’ We said, ‘We are refusing to close bargaining to our members. We are not going to bargain in secret anymore.’ The look on their faces! You could have knocked their attorney over with a feather.”
Like in Brookline, members were furious when School Committee members dismissed their stories, which they told at the table and at the district’s public meetings.
“We packed a School Committee meeting,” said Rigano-Murray. “There’s a three-minute limit on public comments. [The public comment period] started at 6:45 p.m. and ended at 9 p.m., because we turned so many people out to speak.”
As negotiations dragged on, the Northampton union leadership emailed a survey to members of all six units asking if they were ready to impose work-to-rule, in which members would work exactly to their contract and no more. But only 10 percent of members responded.
Rather than interpret the low response rate as a lack of interest, bargaining committee members realized they needed to actually go out and talk to people.
“We divided up the entire membership and went out to the schools for one-to-one conversations and assessment on work-to-rule,” said Rigano-Murray. “We ended up with significantly increased support.”
The school administration insisted that because paraeducators are hourly workers, they could not work to rule. “We reminded [the district] how many ESPs come early and stay late, how many work through lunch and other breaks,” said Rigano-Murray. “[And] we, the union, reminded ESPs to only work during paid time.”
The ESPs held the line on work-to-rule alongside teachers in the district, and won significant raises.
“Delaying the vote for two hours, by having people speak for three minutes each, [with] the room packed to capacity, people overflowing in the hallway—it was a feeling of, ‘Wow! This is power,’” said Rigano-Murray. Then they turned that power to flipping the School Committee in the next election, where they won five new union-friendly seats.
“Let Her Speak”
New union leadership and more inclusive bargaining has shifted the balance of power for paras in Somerville as well. Last spring, the old leaders negotiated a tentative agreement (TA) for paraeducators, but were voted out of office before it was put to the members.
Under the new president, Rami Bridge of the Somerville Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (SCORE), “we started getting minutes and knowing what was going on and I had a feeling like I was a true member,” said Daphnee Balen, a pre-K educator.
The negotiating team didn’t change at first. But Bridges encouraged paraeducators to attend board meetings, demand information, and voice concerns about what was in the TA. “It gave me a voice: I can vote this contract down because it is insulting, and there is an actual process where the bargaining team is open to more members,” said Balen.
When the TA was finally put up for a vote, paraeducators voted it down and began organizing for bolder demands, including a starting salary of $25,000 (which is currently where most top out) and job security after four years (currently all individual contracts are year-to-year). They formed contract action teams in every school and started educating members and the community.
“We started flyering before and after school,” Balen said. “We got 700 community members to sign a statement of support for paras, and then looped those people in through community meetings, so they were flyering and educating the community.”
The culmination of this organizing was a School Committee meeting on January 13 attended by paras, teachers, labor allies, and parents. Teachers and parents spoke of the many ways paras make school a positive experience for vulnerable students. But only a few paras spoke, because the School Committee allowed only residents to speak—and most paras cannot afford to live in rapidly gentrifying Somerville.
After 90 minutes of public comments, the chair attempted to move to recess and the rest of the agenda. Balen, who lives in Revere, went to the microphone, while chants of “Let her speak!” filled the chambers.
“I started thinking about how many people are on my back that I have to carry,” Balen said, describing what it was like to be in the meeting. “The School Committee are treating them as if they are not people, [as if] they are not human. We have lives.” She took the mic and spoke of her fears of not being able to afford a car if hers breaks down, or how to provide care when her child is sick and she has to go to work.
The struggle in Somerville is just beginning, but it is changing the union for paras and teachers. “Part of this process is building our union, and [the School Committee meeting] indicated our force and our ability to get things done and fight,” said Whittier-Ferguson. “People are excited about that.”