School support employees are the foundation of education, AFT president Randi Weingarten told paraprofessionals and school-related personnel at their annual conference, and they are building on that foundation through their strong bonds in the community. No one knows better than PSRPs, she said, that all children should feel safe, know where their next meal is coming from and have a roof over their heads.
“How can a child learn if he’s hungry?” she asked. “How can a student learn if she doesn’t have a warm bed to sleep in?”
But who do the enemies of public education scapegoat? School employees who feed children out of their own pockets. Despite a constant drumbeat of negative talk, Weingarten assured PSRPs that they can win this argument. In Denver, for example, school food service workers, using an AFT Innovation Fund grant, are returning schools to the art of cooking from scratch, and the food is “absolutely delicious.”
During her keynote speech at the AFT PSRP conference held March 22-24 in Minneapolis, Weingarten urged members to keep strengthening public education, like those in Ohio who fended off an attack on collective bargaining, and those in California who won a return to tax fairness and a halt to school layoffs.
“In Minnesota, PSRPs are the No. 1 growing part of our union,” added Thomas Dooher, president of Education Minnesota and an AFT vice president, in welcoming members to his state. “You are the mortar that holds American education together.”
Minnesota’s governor was also on hand to express his support for PSRPs and their unions. Gov. Mark Dayton has used his veto to kill 24 anti-labor bills, and has sponsored legislation that would fund universal kindergarten and make college more affordable.
“Hillary Clinton says it takes a village to raise a child. Well, I know it takes an entire school staff to educate a child,” said Dayton, a former member of the United Federation of Teachers in New York. He also pointed out the outlandish thinking behind so-called school reforms. “If the U.S. Navy underperforms,” he asked, “do we set up charter navies? Or home-school the Navy?”
PSRP chair Ruby Newbold, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and an AFT vice president, urged members to speak out.
“Who is the best to advocate for your profession? You are,” she said. “Who is the best to tell your story? You are. We are, every one of us, advocates for the students we serve. We are advocates for the institutions in which we work. If we don’t advocate, nobody else will.”
PSRPs took part in general sessions and a range of workshops over three days. Sessions on how to approach the new Common Core State Standards saw overflow crowds, along with other lively workshops on team building, campus safety and how to take full advantage of the power of a union.
The ever-popular Solidarity Night hit high notes with performances of “This Union Is Strong in Solidarity” and “Leaders in Our Union, Foundation of Our Schools” by the excellent PSRP Chorus.
AFT PSRP bestowed its highest honor, the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award, on longtime activist Rachel Martinez from the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel. The PSRP division also awarded special recognition to about two dozen local unions for a variety of initiatives, and the AFT health and safety program recognized the work of affiliates in Baltimore, Albuquerque, N.M., and Oregon in taking preventive measures to keep members safe on the job. In a somber moment, members recalled last year’s murders of AFT members and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson pointed out that it’s a basic human right for workers and students to attend school in safety.
Last but not least, visiting college support staff from Argentina and Mexico enlivened the conference, representing CONTUA, the 20-nation Confederation of Workers of the Universities of the Americas.
“So often, we think we’re on our little island, in our little state,” Newbold reflected. “But our issues are the same. Globally, they’re the same. When you hear the naysayers ask why it’s always us, know this: It’s not only us. These issues are everywhere.”