A Union of Unions: ESPs Unite with Teachers to Win at the Bargaining Table.

Eight years ago, the presidents of four locals affiliated with the Washington Education Association (WEA) met at a diner in the Yakima Valley. Their agenda included an item that would dominate their business meetings for years to come: negotiating with the school district as a single unit while bargaining separate contracts.

The strategy was untried, but something was needed to counter the efforts of Yakima School District officials who were blocking contract settlements with unjustified delays, scare tactics, and a “divide and conquer” approach.

As a first step, the local presidents each agreed to attend the other groups’ bargaining sessions, says Janet Beck, a WEA MidState UniServ director and staff negotiator.

“They have since ended up supporting each other to the point where one or more groups might settle for less compensation, for example, in order for another group to get closer to earning a living wage,” she adds.

Two more Yakima locals joined the solidarity group—bringing the tally to five education support professional (ESP) locals and one teachers’ unit. For most matters, they are six separate unions with different names and agendas. But when they’re at the bargaining table, they stand 1,500 strong as Yakima Educators United (YEU).

The unified strategy of sharing contract information, attending each other’s bargaining sessions, and supporting one another in the media and at school board meetings has paid off.

Last spring, contracts were ratified for the Yakima Educational Office Professionals (YEOP) and Yakima Education Association (YEA), which represents teachers.

“It is important to support each other’s proposals since all of our employee groups are needed to have an education system that functions properly,” says Steve McKenna, YEA president. “Through our unified strategy, we learn to see our employee groups through each other’s eyes.”

Last December, after a total of 16 long months of negotiations, contracts were ratified with the Yakima Association of Building Services (YABS), Yakima Maintenance Association (YMA), Yakima Professional Technical Association (YPTA), and Yakima Association of Paraeducators (YAP).

“We’d still be fighting if it weren’t for YEU,” says Buffy Phillips, president-elect of YAP. “We started YEU to support each other and share what was going on with each other’s unions. From networking, we all knew [the district] had the funds to negotiate. ”

The district’s fund balance for 2012 was more than $25 million, according to district records.

“They had the funds in reserve,” says Beck, the Midstate Uniserv director. “They just didn’t want to bargain.”

The six new contracts include gains in wages, insurance contributions by the district, and improvements regarding family leave and other issues.

“The most satisfying aspect of YEU,” Beck explains, “is to see them stand together as a union of unions and know they will continue to organize together.”

YEU’s unity is particularly exemplified by the group’s support of paraeducators. According to YEU, 70 percent of local paraeducators qualify for food stamps, and those who provide insurance for family members earn less than $1,000 a month.

“The other bargaining units took less so paraeducators could get more,” Beck says. “Showing particular support toward paraeducators was their statement of solidarity.”

The need to unite behind paraeducators was brought to light when members discovered that substitute custodians in the district earned several dollars more per hour than full-time paraeducators.

In 2011, it was agreed that paraeducator and custodian associations would work with district officials on a job study comparing the two groups. Results showed the work of paraeducators and custodians to be of equal value.

“People think we work in the front office making photocopies,” says Phillips, who was on the job study committee. “That’s a misperception. Paraeducators help to instruct students in math and reading—right alongside teachers.”

In most U.S. school districts, paraeducators must have a high school degree. According to federal government requirements, those working in Title I schools must hold a two-year or higher degree, have a minimum of two years of college, or pass a rigorous state or local assessment exam. In Yakima, paraeducators are required to have a two-year college degree, 72 credit hours, or pass a state-issued test.

“We help students with social skills, problem-solving skills, and work hard to boost their self-esteem,” says Phillips.

Under the 2009-2011 contracts, new paraeducators in Yakima earned $11.89 an hour while custodians made around $16 an hour. With the new contract, the lowest pay level for paraeducators will be $12.86 an hour—an 8 percent gain to the bottom step on the salary scale. At the top of the scale, paraeducators now earn $18,500, representing a 2.5 percent increase. Paraeducators also received a lump sum payment of 1 percent of base compensation.

McKenna says teachers were adamant about speaking out at board meetings and community events on behalf of ESPs.

“Teachers recognize that ESP members are invaluable partners in our educational system,” he says. “We are all in the same struggle for decent working conditions, fair compensation, and adequate resources to do our jobs properly.”