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Living Wage Organizing in Kentucky

Back to the Grassroots in the Bluegrass State

Avoid other people's "textbooks" and devise your own plan to run a salary/living wage campaign. Think out of the box. Take risks. Ensure that members and their NEA local affiliate are doing the real organizing and campaign work, not the UniServ rep.

That's the advice Kentucky Education Association (KEA) UniServ Director Tim Southern offers about running a solid pay initiative. It's counsel worth heeding. Southern is coordinating the ongoing five-county Eastern Kentucky Living Wage Campaign, a drive that's producing economic gains, building membership and local affiliate leadership, and earning much-needed respect for education support professionals (ESPs).

Just a snapshot of gains in this "non-bargaining" state: In Lawrence County, ESPs recently won an additional 2 percent raise on top of a state-legislated 2 percent increase, an additional five bucks for extra school bus runs, reimbursement for meals while traveling on school business, and two additional paid sick days.

And ESPs in all five rural eastern counties — Floyd, Johnson, Lawrence, Magoffin, and Martin — are tackling basic worker rights, over everything from seniority in assignments to out-of-title work. In three of those counties, the phrase "…and all other related duties as assigned" no longer appears at the end of paraeducator job descriptions.

"Now they can't be ordered to shovel snow!" Southern points out.

Analyze the pieces of this campaign, initiated in 2004 by Southern and now-retired UniServ Director Bob Cribbs, and you'll find some strategies worth stealing:

Inter-local Unity

At the outset, KEA staffers met with 15 leaders from the five ESP locals to gauge interest "in researching and conducting a living wage project." After giving the campaign a green light, leaders made a regional solidarity pact. A unified front made perfect sense — every ESP drove the same roads, got news from the same local media, and worked for district superintendents and transportation directors who shared the same phone lines and worked from the same playbook.

In a follow-up meeting, Southern put 28 local leaders into a room for four hours, with the charge of developing a single list of needs and goals. The top goal that emerged: "Make sure that our members/workers earn enough to keep above the poverty line and are guaranteed a decent standard of living."

Then an agreement was struck: Each local's members would work equally hard on these objectives, and no one affiliate would "settle" with a school board without support from the other four — and the five superintendents would be made aware of this fact.

Intensive Planning

KEA staff and members then put together a detailed campaign timetable, including meetings, training, research, "visibility," activities, communications strategies, rallies, and coalition building — with every area group from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to county Republican Party organizations.

Basic Union Building

Southern and Cribbs had this single-minded goal: Build good, strong locals and empower them. Using NEA living wage materials, KEA poured more than six weeks of training into an expanded group of local leaders. Local budgets were approved and new steering groups were formed, including a core committee (to map everything out), a "search" committee (to gather deep-dish data on key community "players" and court potential allies), and an activity planning committee.

Member Commitment

Organizers built member campaign awareness through school visits, opening day activities, one-on-one contacts, rallies, direct mail, and newsletters. The locals put high stress on membership — one affiliate, Martin ESP, gained 63 new members in 2006 — and even engaged doubtful non-members by urging them to sign cost-free forms authorizing KEA to negotiate on their behalf for one year. A vast majority did, sending a powerful message to superintendents. Swayed by follow-up bargaining progress, "more people are joining and becoming assertive," reports Southern.

Community Outreach

One key campaign organizer, Lawrence ESP President John Boggs, thinks the "biggest thing" behind the campaign's continuing success is "communications, letting people [in the community] know what's going on." ESP local presidents have lobbied each and every school board member. Boggs, a Lawrence County driver who up until recently made $12,240 a year, takes every opportunity to educate and "shock" school board members (through one-on-one lunch meetings) and local citizens about rock-bottom ESP pay. Says Boggs, "We even talked to the Lawrence County superintendent, Jeff May, about what happens when school employees get a 2 percent raise: Teachers get $800 and we [ESPs] get just $200!"

Member Visibility

Boggs, a preacher in private life, takes his salary "fairness" message to congregations of other churches. And his ESP colleagues have reached the community by gathering thousands of living wage petition signatures and running ESP informational tables at popular Eastern Kentucky events, from the Apple Festival to the Martin County Car Show. As a result, "a lot people from the general public are speaking up for us," says Boggs, "especially in letters to local newspapers."

Extensive Use of Media

Boggs notes that the newspapers "have done a lot for us; they say it like it is, and get both sides" of the ESP salary story. This isn't an accident. Early on, campaign activists learned how to develop a message and stick to it, and now it is child-friendly ESP faces and quotes that reach the media. In one KEA press release, Martin County bus driver/paraprofessional Jammie Newsome spoke of the "extra attention" and "good discipline" she provides students, on a combined salary of less than $15,000. "Without financial help from my dad, I do not know how we would live," lamented this single mother of three young children.

A Simple Message

With the help of an NEA salary campaign grant, KEA's simple salary message — "Let's Be Fair" — has been reaching Eastern Kentucky taxpayers through everything from radio spots to billboards (featuring real local ESPs on the job with kids). The radio spots have urged the public to thank the county superintendents who do right by ESPs, and to put pressure on administrators who haven't — yet.

Simple Solidarity

ESPs in the five counties have honored their initial pledge to support one another. These workers "keep communicating, networking, and speaking out for each other," stresses Southern. They travel to neighboring counties to help "work" festivals, gather petition signatures, and contribute to shows of strength at school board meetings. And support professionals can count on the support of teachers, who have collaborated with ESPs on opening day activities, and have, in at least one county (Floyd), "adopted" ESPs on a one-to-one basis to recruit them as Association members.

Simple Common Sense

All that planning, training, organizing, and agitating won't win a living wage campaign without "doing what your heart tells you," says Southern. "You've got to be willing to gamble, stray from the plan a bit, and take a risk." The bottom line, he points out, is winning "respect for ESPs, along with decent wages and working conditions." That's an ambitious project demanding a long-term perspective, a willingness to "hang in there and hack away," and the flexibility to aim in a slightly different direction when you hit a roadblock.

"Be patient, work together, and stand firm," advises this former school bus driver. "You want a living wage? If you don't get it in one year, keep going ‘til you do get it! Technology spoiled us, you know. We got away from grassroots organizing."

Well, not in the Bluegrass State.

--Dave Winans, August 2006