Ten Living Wage Communications Tips
It's All About ESPs Telling Their Own Stories
To win a living wage for education support professionals (ESPs), you've got to "win the hearts and minds" of the community they serve. That's common-sense advice from NEA state and local affiliates -- and other labor organizations -- that have pursued and won pay increases that better reflect the value of ESP work. Here, from the trenches, are 10 valuable communications tips for any living wage campaigner.
1. First and foremost: Elect good school board members.
Says Bernie Mulligan, a veteran communicator with the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT): "If you're not involved in the election of school board members in your community, you're limiting your opportunity to communicate with them in an effective way about a living wage. Superintendents sometimes control information and access to board members -- and constantly shape their perceptions."
2. Strengthen community connections.
Before taking a living wage campaign public, advises Mulligan, it's important to assess the strength of the local Association and its community roots. Starting from the personal connections of individual ESPs, build two-way relationships with parents, other unions, community and business groups, and faith communities.
"The thing to remember," says New York State paraeducator Debbie Minnick, "is that you make those partnerships and relationships ahead of time. Then when you need them, you're able to call on them, and vice versa. You keep those relationships going because your partners are going to want to be able to use your backing as well. It's just kind of a circle that keeps going."
3. Know who your ESP members are.
ESPs tend to live in the districts in which they work and have deep roots there. Survey ESP members on the work they do, their years of service, and their leadership roles in community groups. List family connections in the community, children or grandchildren attending local schools, individual commendations and awards, special talents, specialized training/qualifications for the job, and even the number of unused ESP sick days.
4. Ask ESPs about what they're proudest.
It might be their impact on student achievement, the "hidden" ways they reach and inspire young people, or the contributions they make to the community in which they live and work. Tally this information for an Association communications campaign that can give parents and community residents a full picture of the value that ESPs add to schools and their community.
5. Develop a communications plan.
Consider the living wage campaign's overall goal. Identify the decision makers you need to influence, and spot the people whose support will be needed to achieve a living wage. Who can help you reach those people, and who will try to stop you? How will you allocate resources to a communications campaign? How will you persuade potential allies to join the campaign and how will you neutralize adversaries?
6. Develop your salary message.
Members, potential allies, and the public need to understand the living wage issue. Develop a theme and message that explains it simply (such as "It's All About Fairness"), and then publicize it, repeat it, and disseminate it widely -- being direct and positive.
7. Collect your best arguments for a living wage.
- ESPs play a vital role in children's lives, especially in their health and safety. We need qualified, caring people in every job in every school.
- ESPs are the first people parents and children see in the morning, and the last they see in the evening. People form many of their impressions of the school and school district from the image of teachers and ESPs working together.
- When workers are paid a living wage, taxpayers no longer subsidize low-wage employers. Every school employee should have the right to spend time at home with his or her own kids, without working two or three extra jobs to survive.
- Teachers can't function their very best if ESPs aren't there to help them. Without ESPs, teachers would have less time to do what they do well in the classroom.
- Better pay attracts quality staff and stems turnover. A living wage and low turnover is all about maintaining "institutional memory" in the workplace. Human resource experts estimate that the cost of recruiting, hiring, and training new employees is between 10 percent and 50 percent of a salary for a position.
- The local economy will benefit through higher ESP spending power. "A $40,000 minimum salary for all teachers and a living wage as starting pay for education support professionals would mean economic prosperity for communities," says NEA Research staffer Michael Kahn. "Why? Because education is highly labor-intensive. A dollar invested in education creates more jobs, direct and indirect, than any other sector of the economy."
8. Be ready for the counterarguments.
Assess local attitudes towards schools, educators, and the concept of a living wage. Prepare to deal with arguments against a living wage from community members, employers, and school board members. Role-playing can be helpful in preparing answers to refute counterarguments.
9. Gear up ESPs to tell their own stories.
Bus driver John Boggs, a leader of the Kentucky Education Association's (KEA) Eastern Kentucky Living Wage Campaign, thinks that the biggest factor behind the campaign's momentum is communications by ESPs themselves, "who let people know what's going on" with low pay.
Organizers should pick the brains of ESPs about their work and life experiences, adds NYSUT's Bernie Mulligan. "That's the raw material for a campaign message, and we need ESP spokespeople for a campaign," he points out. "It's really a question of figuring out how to humanize and personalize the theme of fairness."
10. Take the living wage message public.
Veteran campaigners stress the need to identify public education supporters in the community and work with state affiliate communications staff on strategies to move the living wage message to them -- through meetings or the media. Some useful advice from the Virginia Education Association and other organizations that tackle living wage issues:
- Plan any meeting, whether you are going alone or as a group. Research your audience. Decide who will lead the meeting, and what each person will contribute to the discussion. Plan to focus on one issue only: the living wage.
- Tell the living wage story in a personal way that brings the low-wage issue to life. Speak about personal hardships due to low pay. Bring photographs to illustrate your perspective. Give specific examples as often as possible. Don't speculate, exaggerate, fudge, or invent -- just tell it as you see it. Engage your audience in dialogue.
- Appeal to your audience's sense of fairness and justice. There's widespread public opposition to paying less than a living wage, and a tremendous amount of respect for what ESPs do in schools. Work to get elected officials to agree, in principle, that low ESP salaries are unfair. As soon as possible after your visit, jot down notes that record what was said, the tone, and what questions were asked at the meeting.
- Deal intelligently with the media. Compile a list of media outlets in the community. Develop relationships with news directors, editors, education reporters, and talk show producers. Reach out to the media early and foster direct relationships with reporters likely to be assigned to the ESP wage story; use the time to educate them on the issues. Keep pitching story ideas, new or creative angles on ESP work and economic struggles.
- Introduce journalists to struggling, underpaid ESPs. Train selected members to handle contact with the media and have them speak at rallies, community meetings, and other events. The Vermont Living Wage Coalition does public awareness training for members, preparing them to approach school boards, the press, and the community.
- Create your own news through rallies, demonstrations, public forums, community events, and news conferences. Train members how to put together a media package, how to write press releases, and how to follow up after the release to ensure coverage.
- Make liberal use of free media, including letters to the editor, cable TV, talk radio, and community petitioning -- door to door, if necessary.
- Collaborate with teachers to generate positive publicity about teaching and learning, student achievement, safety, and efficient operations in the schools -- and the vital role that ESPs play in making it happen.
- Create a video, PowerPoint, or blog on the work or financial plight of ESPs. In a PowerPoint made by a Pennsylvania ESP local, each bargaining team member talked about her job and how it had changed over the years. The local affiliate effectively corrected an outdated school board impression that poorly paid ESPs were nothing more than menial "paid volunteers."
- Find parents and community members to help you tell your story. "When Mrs. Jones or Mr. Kelly tells a heartwarming story about ways ESPs help their kids, school board members who ignore us listen; they see those parents as 'real' people," says Bernie Mulligan. "It's really effective when people in the school community start to talk about you -- then a campaign comes alive!"