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Cooking up a Campaign

Inspired by their peers, Washington ESPs fight for living wages.

by John Rosales

What's the recipe for a successful living wage campaign? A dollop of funding, a dash of leadership, and lots of willing members. In 2002, the Ithaca Paraprofessionals Association in New York made bargaining history when they combined these ingredients to launch a wage campaign that ultimately gave paras on the low end of the pay scale an immediate 38 percent increase, raised starting pay by 50 percent by the end of the three-year contract, and increased membership in their bargaining unit to 100 percent.

Since Ithaca, public school employees across the country have scraped together funding, sponsored leadership training, and inspired members to start living wage campaigns. From Atlanta and Birmingham to Seneca Valley, Pennsylvania; Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Fayette County, Kentucky; and Burlington, Vermont—education support professionals (ESPs) have launched campaigns.

Generally, a living wage means sufficient compensation to pay for basic necessities without government, community, or other financial assistance. A living wage campaign is a grassroots effort by employees to win enough pay to cover basic items such as rent, food, utilities, taxes, and transportation.

Inspired by campaigns across the country, Washington State ESPs decided to try out the recipe for themselves. "We thought, if [Ithaca] can do it, we can do it," says secretary Debby Chandler, ESP chair of the Spokane Education Association.

To explore the possibility, Chandler met with Jeff Wahlquist, the ESP state coordinator with the Washington Education Association (WEA).

Chandler and Wahlquist knew from attending workshops that living wage campaigns need a core group of members to strategize and research how ESP earnings compare to state living wage figures.

"We already knew ESPs weren't making a living wage because so many are on food stamps," Wahlquist says. "We have members who work a second job to make ends meet, and ESP parents whose kids are on the free and reduced lunch program."

Convinced of the need for a campaign, Chandler knew the perfect group to lead the charge: the 26-member ESP Action Coordinating Team (ACT).

"We already had this mechanism in place," says Chandler, chair of the 20-year-old organization. ACT comprises WEA ESP board members and other ESP leaders from across the state.

In October 2006, the group devised a plan to raise funds to start three wage campaigns simultaneously in different geographic areas, and one month later ACT received a $20,000 NEA grant for this purpose. ACT then received $5,000 from WEA to conduct three daylong training conferences across the state that would inform members about the commitment needed for a campaign. The conferences were held between January and March 2007.

"People went home and talked it up," says Chandler.

Wage campaigns must involve the "engagement of members and potential members to help them see the value of collective action," says Bill Raabe, NEA director of Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy.

"Winning a wage increase is essential, but it's not enough," he says. "These campaigns should help members discover that they have the ability to improve their work lives through grassroots organizing."

Last summer, delegates to the WEA Representative Assembly awarded ACT $100,000 to stage three "lighthouse" campaigns. Raabe says more and more Associations are conducting statewide campaigns simultaneously through three or four lighthouse locals.

Washington's three locals— the Bainbridge Island ESP Association, Lake Washington ESPs, and Yakima Association of Paraeducators—span different regions of the state.

All three are currently at the internal organizing stage of their campaigns, which are being helped by Dan Cuomo, a former Ithaca living wage campaign organizer now based in Olympia.

As the campaigns progress, Chandler is expecting "some major wins" in 2009–10. She also hopes to give up her second job as a hotel bartender once she starts earning a living wage.

Video photos: Dale Folkerts

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