Taking a Contract Campaign Public



Carol Lambiase

As town leaders in Wallingford, Connecticut, grudgingly lined up to approve health care benefits for the school district’s paraprofessionals, they complained they felt browbeaten into taking their toughest vote ever.


Yes

Carol Lambiase

As town leaders in Wallingford, Connecticut, grudgingly lined up to approve health care benefits for the school district’s paraprofessionals, they complained they felt browbeaten into taking their toughest vote ever. . . .


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Town leaders in Wallingford, Connecticut, complained that they felt browbeaten by these school district para professionals, who built an effective public campaign for health benefits. Photo: Carol Lambiase

As town leaders in Wallingford, Connecticut, grudgingly lined up to approve health care benefits for the school district’s paraprofessionals, they complained they felt browbeaten into taking their toughest vote ever.

They didn’t mean to, but the city officials were acknowledging the effectiveness of a public campaign built by the paraprofessionals before and after their contract expiration last June.

The school district’s 190 “paras” had never received health benefits. In previous negotiations, the issue had divided the membership, because a majority received health benefits through their spouses and supported larger wage increases instead. But after their union affiliated with the United Electrical Workers (UE), a contract survey revealed that more than half the members rated health insurance the most important issue in upcoming negotiations.

Health benefits would run the city a million dollars a year, making a public campaign necessary to build support and convince the Board of Education.

Over the years the role of school paraprofessionals has changed dramatically. Paras now provide frontline support enabling the inclusion of children with special needs in public schools, and provide individualized attention in reading, math, and science. Paras are overwhelmingly women, and not surprisingly, pay and benefits have not kept up with the leap in responsibilities and expectations.

Union leaders began to gather information about how the lack of health insurance affected members. While the contract didn’t expire until June 2008, in the fall of 2007 lunchtime meetings were held at all 13 schools in the district, and paras without health benefits were asked to talk. Some said they used their entire paycheck to pay for insurance. For others it meant going without or going deeply into debt. Their stories were moving and helped to build support among paras who already had health benefits.

The next step was to publicize the stories. In the past negotiations had always taken place behind closed doors, and at first members were reluctant to put themselves before the public. But union leaders kept emphasizing that getting health benefits required a public campaign.

GET THE WORD OUT

The union contacted local videographers working with a statewide health care advocacy group, who volunteered to film interviews. As word spread, more and more paras agreed to be interviewed on film.

After 17 interviews were completed, a short video was distributed to the paras and politicians, and went up on YouTube (search “Wallingford Paras”). Paras talked to local newspapers and one ran the YouTube link on its front page. The local community news channel aired the video continuously.

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By January 2008, building reps were holding strategy meetings to bring community support to the campaign. A petition was developed and paras began approaching teachers, parents, and local residents. Hardly anyone refused to sign the petition, and paras learned that they had a lot more support than they had thought.

At one strategy meeting, paras decided to hold a public hearing, and had local groups help recruit prominent members of the community to form a panel and hear testimony.

Paras mobilized members to attend and to bring desserts. The hearing was attended by 150 people, far more than had ever attended any local union event. When the panel issued its findings on the need for health insurance, paras delivered them personally to school board members.

Paras continued to circulate petitions, attend Board of Education meetings, and approach members outside of meetings.

DON’T GAG NEGOTIATIONS

Negotiations began in May. In the past there had been a gag rule in place during bargaining, but UE does not agree to gag rules. For the first time, members were invited to sit in during negotiations. There were regular reports back to the membership.

Open negotiations greatly increased members’ activity. Members wrote letters to the editor, wore stickers, made signs, and took to the streets, picketing before and after work in downtown Wallingford.

Paras filled the room at a Board of Education meeting in November and their children spoke during the public comments period. Letters from parents were presented.

Finally, after six months of negotiations, the Board of Ed proposed to phase-in health benefits. The contract was ratified overwhelmingly and the benefits will begin July 1. While not everything the union wanted, the deal has the district picking up 50 percent of the premium in the first year, increasing each year until it reaches 80 percent. Despite the downturn in the economy, town leaders funded the contract.

The struggle transformed the local, whose president, Annie MacDonald, reports that members used to ask what they got for their dues.

“Now today, we have members who are willing to actively stand up for their rights and are not afraid to speak out for what they believe in,” she said.


Carol Lambiase ia a UE International Representative.


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