An Education Support Professional describes a sick-out organized in protest of low pay and lack of respect

“The shit rolls downhill in K-12”

I work at a large (roughly 900 students) Pre-K through 8th grade public school in Minneapolis. I work as a Special Education Assistant (SEA), one of many job titles that falls under the umbrella term of Education Support Professional (ESP), also known in other school districts as paraprofessionals. This is my seventh year working at this school, I’ve been organizing there for five years, and I’ve been a member of the IWW for four years. I have intentionally written this piece without my name or any other names included, because we are still actively organizing at this school.

Like any industry under capitalism, the shit rolls downhill in the K-12 education industry. The dominant business interests in our society put pressure on the school boards and superintendents to produce compliant and competent workers, and whether the schools are succeeding at this task is measured by scores on standardized tests in reading, math, and science. The superintendents put pressure on principals to produce better test scores at their schools, and the principals in turn bully teachers to produce better test scores by teaching to the test. Education Support Professionals (ESPs) are below teachers, so in many instances, ESPs can get bullied or pushed around by teachers. Then ultimately, the pressure is also on ESPs to bully and push around students.

Of course this is an oversimplification of all the dynamics at play in schools, but it hopefully gives you an idea of why pushing back against the power structure is both very difficult and very necessary for ESPs and other workers at the bottom of the hierarchy in schools.

Low pay and lack of respect

Two of the most common grievances of ESPs are the lack of respect and value we get from school leaders and the school district in general, and the low pay that makes it difficult for many ESPs to make ends meet.

As an organizer, I’ve often struggled with how to organize around these issues. A lack of respect is a nebulous and undefined grievance, how do you make a concrete and measurable demand around getting more respect? Meanwhile wages and benefits is a huge issue that you can make concrete demands around, but it is a wider scale issue and it’s removed from our direct workplace. Our principal doesn’t set our wages, our wages are determined by the bureaucratic process of contract negotiations between our business union (an affiliate of the national teachers’ unions, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association) and the district leadership, and there are over 1,500 ESPs in our school district. Figuring out how to connect this huge issue of pay to workplace organizing seemed too difficult. Until this past fall, I tended to avoid the wage issue in my workplace organizing.

Our workplace committee

Over the past few years at my school, we have had a strong culture of organizing around workplace issues. Despite facing turnover of workers every year, there has been a strong organizing committee, consisting of both teachers and ESPs, for 5 years now. This is not an explicitly IWW organizing committee (we use the mainstream union titles of “union stewards”), but there are five IWW members at our school, and we’ve had over a dozen workers from our school attend the IWW Organizer Training 101 over the past few years.

Our organizing committee is industrial (open to all types of workers at our school) in theory, but in practice we’ve mostly failed to organize extensively with job classes besides teachers and ESPs. However, we have built strong organizing connections between teachers and ESPs, which is very important, and not very common at most schools in our district.

We don’t interact much with the business union apparatus, and instead focus on issues that are most relevant to our school, often using direct action to win demands. Some successful examples of this include threatening a work stoppage to win paid Professional Development for ESPs, picketing school board meetings to win a cleaner school and more janitorial staffing, and taking over a school board meeting to win the rehiring of a fired probationary teacher.

The strong connections built between teacher and ESP organizing over the past few years would prove to be very important in the ESP sickout organizing of this past fall.

Looming concessions

ESPs are paid hourly, and the vast majority of ESPs work around 30 hours a week (the entire school day). Over the past 17 years, ESP wages have increased by 16%, while the Consumer Price Index (inflation) has increased by 42% over the same time period. Coupled with other factors like gentrification and the rising cost of housing in Minneapolis, many ESPs have been feeling increasingly squeezed financially. Most ESPs have to work two or even three jobs just to make ends meet.

Over the summer break, our business union had been negotiating with the school district to reach a new two-year contract. In typical business union fashion, very little information was shared with ESPs until ESPs got back to work at the end of August and started to realize that the business union negotiations team had made huge concessions to the district and was close to reaching an agreement.

The first ESP business union member meeting of the school year in September had a larger-than-usual turn out, and people were fired up. The bargaining team started out the meeting happily announcing that they were very close to reaching an agreement with the district. They had no idea that many rank-and-file ESPs were fed up and not happy with the concessions that were being made. The union leadership got an earful from members at that meeting, and they defensively turned to their typical excuses, defending the district and arguing that we as a union were powerless.

“The district doesn’t have any more money.”

“This is the best deal we can get.” “

If we go in to mediation, we could get an even worse deal.”

“Only 60% of ESPs are even members of the union, there’s no way we could pull off a strike.”

I’ve come to learn that in most business unions, “strike” is a dirty, scary word, usually said with a look of fear on the face of union leadership. In contrast, the matter-of-fact way that my co-workers would talk about a strike in the coming weeks was refreshing, and helped convince me that what we ended up doing was actually possible.

The business union leadership, feeling the pressure in the room, agreed to slow down negotiations so that a rally could be organized at the next school board meeting, to try to put pressure on the district around higher wages for ESPs. The business union leadership didn’t have the skills or the desire to organize a successful rally, so most of the work of organizing the rally was done by the ESPs who had showed up agitated to the first member meeting in September. The support for the rally from the union leadership was half-hearted, and one wobbly in particular ended up having to bottom-line a lot of things to make sure the rally happened successfully. The rally ended up going pretty well, several hundred people showed up, and we packed the school board meeting room.

Many rank-and-file ESPs gave very powerful speeches, slamming the district for how badly they treat their workers and how deeply the low pay affects ESPs. The school board members, all “progressive” democrats, listened patiently and politely, and then after our rally was done, went on with their school board meeting business as usual. Most of the ESPs at the rally seemed pretty energized, but it didn’t seem like that much pressure had been put on the district.

Two days after the rally, the ESP union negotiations team met with the district again. The ESP union had encouraged people to come out and watch the meeting, happening at the union hall. The 25 or so ESPs in attendance watched as the union negotiations team brought a new proposal to the table: the concessions were gone, and the union was demanding wage increases of 3% each year of the twoyear contract. These were similar to the demands that had been included in the messaging for the school board rally.

Unfortunately, it was just for show. The district lawyer promptly said “no” to the proposal, and chided the union for “regressive bargaining” because they had been “so close to a deal at the last meeting.” The union negotiations team promptly came back a few minutes later with a new proposal, nearly identical to the district proposal from a month earlier; a 0% raise in the first year, and a 1% raise in the second year, with a step freeze (annual raises ESPs are supposed to get for each year in the district for their first 6 years) in year two of the contract. A tentative agreement had been reached that would go to the members of the ESP union for a vote.

“When are we going to strike?”

Prior to this, when the school board rally was being organized, I was spreading the word at my school and trying to turn my co-workers out to the rally. It was a good opportunity to have agitational conversations with co-workers about our low pay, but ultimately not many of the co-workers came to the rally. Many of my co-workers have a second job, or kids they have to take care of, or some other obligation which made it difficult for them to come to a school board rally in the evening. I also think many of the co-workers weren’t super excited about the idea of a school board rally — what was a school board rally really going to accomplish?

I started to think more about this, when on the day of the school board rally, two different co-workers separately stopped me in the hall. “I can’t make it to the school board meeting tonight, but I think we should just strike, I’m down for whatever,” said one. “When are we going to strike?” said the other. These were both co-workers who I didn’t know that well, and who I’d never thought of as particularly interested in organizing. I felt a little sheepish: why was I trying to get people to go to a rally, when co-workers were walking up to me and talking about striking?

What happened next was a huge blunder by the district and the principal at our school, and a huge gift to our organizing. On my way to the negotiations meeting where the union sold out rank-and-file ESPs and reached a tentative agreement with the district, I got a work email from my principal with the subject line “Possible Sick Out”. The email was sent to all the ESPs at my school, and mostly consisted of a forwarded message from Human Resources, stating: Human Resources has advised us of possible concerted activity among some members of the ESP bargaining unit around a planned “sick out” over the next few work days. Please note that we have been informed that the ESP union leadership has not sanctioned or organized any such activities.

So that we are able to maintain adequate levels of support to our students and support a meaningful learning environment, please be advised that any ESP staff who report an unplanned absence tomorrow, October 12, 2018 and/or Monday, October 15, 2018 will be required to provide a signed doctor’s note in order to utilize paid sick leave.

I could barely contain my laughter at the irony: our principal was informing me and all my co-workers that there was a sick-out planned! This was news to me, but in talking to ESPs at other schools that evening, I learned that 24 ESPs had called in sick at one school in the district that day. That day coincided with the monthly meeting of all the principals in the district, and the principals and HR were in a panic that there were already plans for sick-outs at other schools. They thought they could head things off by threatening to withhold pay from anyone who participated in a sick out. In reality, the sick-out that occurred that day had been organized by the ESPs at only that one school; there were no plans at other schools. But sometimes the bosses overestimate how organized the workers are, and then the workers are presented with an opportunity to rise to fulfill the bosses’ fears.

Organizing the sick-out

The email from the principal provided two critical things: context for a conversation starter, and legitimacy to the idea of a sick-out. The next day at work I began talking to my co-workers about the idea of a sick-out. Conversations were easy to start, even with co-workers I didn’t know that well. “Did you see that email from the principal?” People were curious and confused by the email, so I was easily able to spread the word that 24 ESPs had called in sick the day before at another school in the district.

The response to that information was overwhelmingly positive “We should do that here!” said a number of co-workers right away. Others needed a bit more of a nudge, so I asked them “There are some people that think we should do that here, what do you think?” The support from these initial conversations was strong, so the next step was to gather everyone’s personal contact information. This was a great task to ask anyone who was supportive to take on.

I made the mistake of initially only asking for people’s personal emails, but perhaps that wasn’t all bad, because then a few days later it gave everyone involved with organizing the sick-out the opportunity to go around and gather phone numbers from everyone, while having follow-up conversations about the sick-out idea. We quickly were able to gather the majority of people’s contact information, which also seemed to show that there was strong support for the idea of a sick-out.

It’s always important to have a strong idea of the social map of the workers at your workplace. Knowing who talks to whom, and who are social leaders, is key to building support for a mass action like a sick-out. There are 40 ESPs total at my school, about half of whom are Special Education Assistants, and the rest are a mix of behavior support, classroom assistants, and office staff/family liaisons.

There are 7 behavior staff, and they are very important to the overall function of the school. They also are a cohesive team socially, so I knew getting them on board would be key. I went one day on my lunch break and talked to one of the behavior staff that has been there the longest and is also a big social leader. After a 10-minute conversation, where we talked through the idea and talked openly about the risks and challenges, she was in full support and she said she thought the rest of the behavior team would be in support too.

Getting the behavior team on board was huge, because it also was a big morale boost for anyone who was on the fence or feeling scared — once they heard the entire behavior team was on board, they felt pumped up.

Teacher support

As we moved towards organizing the sick-out, it was crucial that we build some support among teachers, while also making sure that word didn’t get out to the administrators at our school. We had a meeting of our main organizing committee of six teachers and two ESPs a few days after we started organizing for the sick-out. The other ESP on the committee and I shared what was going on with the sick-out organizing, and all the teachers on the committee were very supportive. We prepared them for what we would need them to do if/when we had a sick out.

The main ways we needed them to support us was to go around on the day of the sick-out and explain to teachers why all the ESPs were gone, and encourage teachers to voice their support for us. Teachers would have a hard day without any ESP support, so having supportive teachers talk to other teachers to make sure they understood our action and directed their frustration at the district rather than at ESPs was crucial to the success of the action. We also needed them to be our eyes and ears in the school that day, to see how administration was dealing with us being gone, and what the impacts of our sick-out had been on the school.

In the event, without the strong support from teachers, and particularly from the teachers on our organizing committee, the sick-out would not have been so successful.

Planning for retaliation

After we had gathered contact information for a decent number of ESPs, we had our first meeting outside of work to plan for the sick-out. We had 7 ESPs at the meeting and we spent a decent amount of time talking through the most common concerns people had, both to firm up the support of the 7 ESPs in the room, and also so that all 7 of the ESPs at the meeting could go back to work on Monday and feel prepared to talk through these concerns with other co-workers. Inoculation — talking through the scary and difficult things about organizing — is so important, especially for a serious work action like a sick-out.

We also selected a committee of 5 ESPs with representation from across the different job types in the school to be empowered to set the date of the sick-out. We had decided that in order to protect against our plans leaking to administration (and facing the risk of intimidation or retaliation prior to a sick-out), we would not spread the word about what day the action was going to be until after school the day before. Once we had the phone numbers of enough co-workers who said they were on board, we would set the date and move quickly. At the end of the meeting, we took a look at the list of the 40 ESPs in our school, and assigned people to try to get the phone numbers of the people we were still missing.

The sick-out grows

While we were organizing at our school, I also connected with ESPs (one of whom was a wobbly) at two other schools who were hoping to organize sick-outs there as well. The wobbly hosted a meeting at her house on a Tuesday evening for ESPs from all three schools that were organizing, so that we could coordinate our plans. The other two schools were aiming for Thursday, so the committee of 5 ESPs at our school decided we would set our sick-out for Thursday as well.

Last-minute tension

The day before the sick out, there was still a lot that needed to happen. There were a few more co-workers that we still needed to get phone numbers for. We needed to have a meeting after work to announce that tomorrow was the day, and have everyone at the meeting help spread the word to all the ESPs at our school.

Most of all we just needed to make it through the day without our administrators finding out what we were planning. We had done our best to inoculate everyone, but last-minute threats or intimidation from our bosses could seriously undermine or kill our sick-out.

With 30 minutes left in the school day, the principal walks in to the classroom I’m working in. Our principal is very disengaged with students, and had not been in that classroom at all this school year. My heart skipped a couple of beats as I thought for sure I was going to get pulled out of class to the principal’s office, and my mind flashed to the panic attacks I’d had after the two previous times I’d been pulled in to the principal’s office in retaliation for organizing.

But the principal didn’t call for me, and instead pulled a student out (phew!). Soon the day was over, with no indication that our administrators knew what we were planning for tomorrow.

At the meeting after school, the mood was one of both excitement and anxiety. We had failed to get the phone numbers of a few ESPs (mostly ESPs who were brand new, and also some of the office staff/family liaisons), but we had phone numbers and verbal commitments for a sick-out from 32 out of 41 ESPs at our school. We went through the plan for the next day: we would all email our supervisor between 5:30 and 6:30am, saying we would be out sick that day. We talked through last-minute concerns people had. We divided up contacting people, so that every ESP would get contacted by at least two other ESPs, to make sure they knew tomorrow was the day, and to help make them feel solid on following through with the plan.

I had finally gotten two more phone numbers that day, of people who had not yet committed to participating in the sick-out, so I made plans to text them with a heads up/no pressure invitation to participate.

That evening I talked with the two main organizers from the other two schools. Someone at one of the schools had leaked to the principal that there was a sick-out planned, and so HR and the principal had sent out the same email threatening to withhold pay from anyone who called out sick. Despite that, both of the other schools were moving ahead with their sick-outs.

I was a little worried that our principal would send out the same threatening email to our ESPs and that it might scare a few people out of participating, but the email never came. I guess because of the false alarm the last time, they figured it was just another false alarm. I went to sleep anxious, wondering if everyone was going to follow through, or if some people would get cold feet at the last minute.

“Count me in, I’m going home.”

I woke up early in the morning on the day of the sick out. I sent my supervisor my email letting her know I was sick, and then waited with my phone on loud to be ready to answer any last minute texts or phone calls from co-workers.

I got a last-minute confirmation from someone that they were participating, but then a last-minute text from someone saying that she totally supported us, but that she’d been out sick a lot lately so she was going in today. I texted her back saying I understood and thanks for letting me know.

I started to feel nervous that maybe more people were getting cold feet and showing up to work. Thirty minutes later, that same co-worker texted me back “Count me in, I’m going home.” At that moment I knew the sick out had been a success.

Sure enough, the principal soon sent out an email to all staff announcing that 33 ESPs were out sick that day. From the other two schools, I got confirmation that 17 ESPs were out sick at one, and 16 ESPs out sick at another. The sick out had been a great success!

We started getting reports from teachers that the school was very chaotic, and administration was scrambling to fill the gaps. We later found out that the Associate Superintendent, a Principal from another school, and 10 other staff from the district headquarters were sent to our school for the whole day to try to cover for us.

At the end of the school day, our principal sent out an email to all staff, and cc’ing the people who had come from the district headquarters, thanking everyone for their hard work that day, and remarking on how wonderful everything had gone that day. Of course the message to ESPs was clear, our principal was bitter and wanted us to know that the school operated just fine without us. I’m not going to lie, that email hurt, and many other ESPs texted me that evening, furious about the message the principal was sending.

Fortunately, the teachers had our backs. Many teachers were furious too that the principal was sending this message to ESPs, and also invalidating the incredibly difficult and chaotic day they just had to endure. The teachers on our organizing committee began organizing teachers to reply-all to the principal’s email, and the replies started to come in, contradicting the principal’s claim that everything had gone well that day, and also explicitly stating their support for ESPs and our action.

By the next morning, the principal was forced to publicly backpedal, sending out a new email, acknowledging that many things had gone wrong the day before, and that ESPs were critical to the operation of our school.

None of the administrators would make eye contact with me the next day, and ESPs walked tall through the halls, we all knew there had been a shift in the balance of power.

Covering sick pay

In the aftermath of the sick out, the district followed through on their threat of not paying us if we didn’t bring a doctor’s note. Our principal had to go around and apologize individually to every ESP that our sick pay was being denied, another example of the shift in power dynamics at the school. Most ESPs are accustomed to the principal not even greeting us when she sees us in the halls.

We didn’t feel like we had the energy and capacity left at that point to try to escalate our fight to the district, so we organized a GoFundMe to raise money to pay the lost wages. The support was strong from teachers at our school, other teachers in the school district, the Twin Cities IWW, and members of the broader IWW, and we raised enough money to pay the full wages of everyone who needed it most, and a half-day’s wage to everyone else. The GoFundMe was a big boost to the morale of all the ESPs who participated, because it was a concrete demonstration that people supported us and also showed that we were going to take care of each other.

The contract

Voting on the tentative contract agreement occurred during the week after our sick out, and the vote results were announced the following week. The contract passed 58% to 42%, which was not surprising considering usually contracts are approved by over 90% of the vote, and the union leadership had been pushing hard for a yes. Ultimately our sick-out has not yet won us higher wages. However, I still feel like the sick out was a success and I don’t regret any of it, because there have been significant positive impacts from the sick out.

Respect

Regarding the common grievance of the lack of respect for ESPs, we have made big advances at our school. Administration and teachers alike have shown a lot more appreciation and respect for ESPs since the sick out. On the annual ESP appreciation day a few weeks later, the administration at our school bought all ESPs pizza, salad, cake, and ice cream, when most years we are lucky to get an email and maybe some donuts.

ESPs have also felt a lot more empowered and assertive, and several ESPs have successfully pushed back against bullying or mistreatment from administrators and teachers since the sick out.

Perhaps most importantly is the potential for future organizing. Now that ESPs at our school know we have the power and the organization to carry out a strike, we carry a much bigger stick, and it limits what our school administration will try to get away with, as well as greatly increases our capacity to organize around whatever grievances arise in the future.

The lasting success of this action will also depend a lot on the follow-up after the action. Which has both already occurred and is ongoing. The sick out brought ESPs together that had never talked before, building new relationships and strengthening existing ones. New leaders emerged as organizers, and following up with people should help grow our organizing capacity going forward. It can be tricky, because after a big action as an organizer you can feel very tired and burned out, but it’s really important to circle back and validate the work everyone did to make the action successful, in order to strengthen those organizing relationships going forward.

Postscript

In the three months since this sick-out, there has been no retaliation against anyone at our school that participated, despite our principal telling me that “Apparently what you all did was an illegal strike, and the district is looking at discipline for people.” Of the workers that participated, nobody has expressed regret about having participated in the action. There were two co-workers who we hadn’t gotten word out to in time about the sick-out, who afterwards expressed that they felt bad that they hadn’t been included. One of them had missed a couple of emails sent to their personal email in the lead up to sick-out, and I didn’t have their phone number, so the lesson learned from that is to not rely on email to organize time-sensitive things, because not everyone constantly checks their email. I apologized to this co-worker afterwards and we had a good conversation about the sick-out, so I think that hopefully their relationship to our organizing wasn’t damaged so much that they won’t participate in future actions.

An important part of people feeling solid about the sick-out was that we were successful in raising enough money to cover the pay of everyone who had expressed concern about their ability to miss a day of pay. I personally felt a little bummed that we weren’t able to force the school district to pay us the sick hours, but it would have required some serious escalation against the district, which would have been risky and also seemed like something we didn’t have enough energy for at the time. We organized a meeting the week after the sick-out to talk about what our next steps could be, and organizing some kind of escalation to demand they pay our sick hours was an idea on the table, but the meeting was poorly attended, which seemed to indicate a lack of capacity to organize any escalation. Our contacts at the two other schools who had held sick-outs the same day also expressed that their schools weren’t prepared or willing to escalate around demanding our sick hours were paid. The GoFundMe we organized instead distributed money to everyone who participated, which ended up being good, because I think it helped people feel like there was a lot of support for us, and it built further trust between everyone who participated in the sick out.

There were a handful of co-workers both right around the sick-out, and in the few months since, that expressed some regret that we didn’t extend the sick-out for longer than one day. One co-worker expressed disappointment to me that we didn’t continue the sick-out for a second day on Friday “so that our bosses lose sleep all weekend, wondering if we’re going to come to work on Monday.” Just a few days ago another co-worker expressed that we really should have kept the sick-out going until we won higher pay. Mostly though, everyone who participated has felt really proud about how successful the sick-out was, and it’s a good memory for people to remember how we – some of the lowest paid workers in the school – exercised our power that day.

The biggest lesson I feel like I’ve learned as an organizer is to not underestimate how willing workers are to take direct action when they are agitated. Working in a workplace with an established bureaucratic union and a union contract, it can feel like a very difficult environment for solidarity unionism and direct-action organizing. The sick-out experience has further convinced me that business unions are ineffective and often opposed to organizing, while reaffirming my belief in the power and intuition of rank-and-file workers. You and your co-workers have the power, and as long as you stick together and exercise that power together, there is a lot to be won.