What Does NEA Have That Others Don't?

The group of office professionals working in St. Francis, Minnesota, were fed up. They had once been a strong independent union unafraid to advocate for themselves against officials with Independent School District 15.

Debra Parson (center) is all smiles at a recent organizing meeting attended by Education Minnesota (EM) Vice President Paul Mueller (left), Ryan Fiereck, and Denise Specht, EM president.

But over the years, they had lost leverage. Members had seen their unit depleted by job cuts and reassignments. In addition, some district officials went out of their way to demean and chastise these education support professionals (ESPs) for defending their rights to fair wages and decent working conditions.

“They expressed a feeling of being disposable and underappreciated,” says Debra Parson, president of Education Minnesota St. Francis Local 1977. “They were told that employees like them were a dime a dozen.”

They are not being told that anymore. Last May, the independent unit of 34 office workers voted to affiliate with EM-St. Francis, which already represents approximately 650 teachers, education assistants, and nutrition and transportation services workers.

“I was approached by two of the ‘OPs’ within my district,” says Parson, a teacher at St. Francis Middle School. “They heard conversations from Local 1977 members on how active and engaged our leadership is and how confident they felt going into the next round of bargaining.”

What happened in this rural school system located approximately 40 miles from St. Paul and Minneapolis, soon spread to Watertown-Mayer, where a previously unorganized group of 56 paraprofessionals voted 32-8 to be represented by Education Minnesota Watertown-Mayer ESP. And immediately west of Minneapolis, in St. Louis Park, an independent union of paraprofessionals, health aides, behavior specialists, and other aides joined Education Minnesota (EM) in June.

Previously called SPARK (Support Personnel Assisting and Reaching Kids), the local is now known as Education Minnesota-SPARK. The new unit has the potential for 160 new members.

“SPARK chose to affiliate with Education Minnesota because it wanted to have the resources that we provide to help further their negotiations and representation goals,” says EM organizer Alyssa Mueller. “The professional and leadership development trainings provided were also of interest to them.”

ESPs continue to be Education Minnesota’s fastest-growing membership group, say organizers. One reason: Under the State of Minnesota’s “local association” designation, worker groups like SPARK and the St. Francis office professionals are allowed to unionize and represent themselves. But often, their ranks are low, and consequently their bargaining leverage is compromised.

“One of the major reasons the Watertown-Mayer paras were interested in joining Education Minnesota was a feeling of miscommunication and a lack of respect from the district,” says Bridget Foster, an EM organizer who also covers St. Francis. “That will change.”

The organizing process moved quickly in St. Francis after Foster, Parson, and field representative Gary Christofferson hosted two informational sessions about what the Association offered members. After the second session, a survey was conducted that showed overwhelming support from the office professionals to affiliate with their EM local.

“The OPs wanted to be a part of the ‘movement’ they felt was going on around them,” says Parson.  “They heard Local 1977 members talking about the open communication they were experiencing with new district leaders and how they felt connected as one large group, even though they were four separate units under one umbrella.”

While the office professionals of St. Francis moved quickly, voting to join EM just two weeks after the second orientation meeting, the paraprofessionals of Watertown-Mayer took almost a year, joining only after four paras, each a building representative for the previously independent unit, began informing their colleagues about the benefits of membership in EM.

“As we started to gather information from EM, we each passed it along to others in our respective buildings,” says Patty Reinert, a preschool paraprofessional and co-president of EM Watertown-Mayer. “We worked hard to find out what our colleagues wanted and it paid off.”