Meridian, Idaho, was at the center of the labor organizing universe for four days in October. More than 120 people – most of them Education Support professionals – came from Alaska, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington to contact current, past, and prospective Idaho Education Association members. Together, they had frank conversations about what it means to be a member and how the association can better serve public school employees, especially in times of attacks on our public schools.

Organizing for Power, as the program is known, is a growing movement within the National Education Association. Often called O4P for short, the program empowers educators to talk about association membership through “cold call” home visits. Participants often find that by talking about what makes membership worthwhile, they recognize more fully how the union has been valuable in their own lives and careers.

Paula MonroePaula Monroe (at right), the ESP representative to the NEA Executive Committee, told participants at a Saturday morning breakfast kickoff that Meridian was the only place holding such an event that weekend. “Every time I am able to be on the ground with members and do this kind of work, it energizes me,” she said, encouraging participants to look at the experience as a gift that will keep giving as lives are changed in Meridian and beyond. (The October session in Meridian was the second of three that participants have committed to attend. The first was in Portland in September; the third will be in Seattle in January.)

IEA President Penni Cyr welcomed the group and offered a brief primer on how Idaho educators were blindsided last January by the three harmful education bills that are now law. “That’s what we’re living with,” she said, “so we need to keep the laws in the public eye by telling our stories, which is what we do best.”

Jorge Rivera from the NEA Pacific Region office rallied the group and gave a shout out to NEA trainer and event participant Debbie Minnick, a former paraprofessional educator who won a 50 percent raise for 225 colleagues in an 18-month living wage campaign in Ithaca, New York.  Before that, Rivera noted, the paraprofessionals were always told by their district that there was no money for raises, “but then they’d find money for their pet projects.” By organizing and speaking out for their need for a living wage, the workers ultimately prevailed. There’s hope that at some point, Meridian ESPs can win similar gains.

ESPs from around the West visit Meridian education employeesThat day may be years away. Joint School District 2 is reeling this year from budget and staff cuts forced by the defeat of a levy last May and the impact of the three new education laws. Even before that, Meridian had the lowest per-pupil funding of any district in the United States with enrollments of more than 25,000 students. Many former MEA members have either been laid off or must make difficult household budget choices. 

But tough times don’t mean people should stop talking about better wages and fair job practices, such as an end to Joint District 2’s tendency to hire people for 19 ½ hours so they don’t qualify for benefits. “The timing on this could not be better,” Meridian Education Association President Luke Franklin told the group.

Meridian ESP Tawni Berryman-Hull, a special education paraprofessional who took part in the Organizing for Power training last school year, told the group they might meet people who say they’re already members of the Meridian Classified Employees Association. But that group, launched and led by the district’s public relations director, is mostly a social group focusing on service projects. Deedra Pedersen, a Meridian transportation ESP, noted to laughter that the group’s annual food drive to help members is “hugely ironic. Just pay us (better) so we can buy groceries!” She added that the MCEA claims it is an advocacy group, but it is not. “It’s a wonderful thing if you want to be socially involved,” said Pedersen, “but it’s not your union.”

Franklin warned that there was a Boise State University football game that afternoon, so some people might not answer the door after kickoff. Franklin also cautioned participants that Sunday is a family day for many local people, especially members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he added that LDS church members, despite generally conservative political leanings, are strong supporters of public schools and would be open to the union message.

Merle Dinning, a custodian and a Boundary County Education Association member, was one of the Idahoans who joined ESPs from all over the West to visit Meridian-area homes. “What I liked best was being able to talk with other people in similar situations and similar jobs and get to know a lot of people from around the country,” he said a few days later.

Dinning was teamed with Keri Clark from Anchorage, Alaska, and Colin Rexroat, a fellow custodian from Yakima, Washington, all pictured here. The first cold call didn’t come easy. “I had problems even thinking about it,” even to the point of being physically ill, he recalled. But Dinning psyched himself up to get through the first experience, and it got easier. “When you’re thinking ‘I,’ it’s hard,” he added. “But when ‘we’ went up (to the door), it was easy.”

The home visitors heard some sad stories in their treks to 1,300 Treasure Valley doors. One fourth-year teacher had left the association because it was either pay dues or make insurance payments; she couldn’t afford both. Others had similar stories of trying to make hard spending decisions when times are so tight. O4P participants were encouraged to talk about the array of IEA-NEA Member Benefits that can help people recover the cost of their dues, but as one person said, “I can’t even afford to go down to Chuck E. Cheese to get the discount.”

While in Idaho, participants also made 3,000 one-on-one contacts with Joint District 2 employees at 30 district worksites on Monday, the third day of the four-day training. On Tuesday, the participants shared stories of their experiences over the three previous days. Their homework is now to conduct similar one-on-one visits in their home locals.

During the October event, participants gathered commitment cards from about 300 people. “These cards are like gold to the Meridian Education Association, because they come from members who are ready to join the fight, knowing they have a place in the association,” said Carol Nelson, union organizer for the NEA’s Pacific Region.

The MEA executive board and organizing committee will crunch the data collected through the O4P outreach to set goals. “In the data, members and non-members have told us what they need,” Nelson said. “With that, we build the plans to move the organization forward. People cannot argue with their own data. We can say, ‘You told us this is what you need from the association and that you would help us.’”

Currently, 85 percent of Idaho’s classified public school employees are not yet members of the Idaho Education Association. One sunny fall weekend, many of them were able to have candid face-to-face discussions with people from across the West who have seen the benefits of union membership. Improvement in wages may be years away, but by building networks and power now, ESPs and certified educators alike will be in stronger bargaining positions when the economy finally improves.

Is your local interested in attending a future Organizing for Power training series? Contact your Region Director.

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