Strength in Unity
Beating the odds, ESPs and teachers in Alaska join forces for a better wage.
By Tim Walker
Delta Greely ESPA’s Andrea Lemons
Mounting a successful living wage campaign during a recession is always a challenge. For education support professionals in Delta-Greely, Alaska—a small, cash-starved rural community—the odds were especially daunting. But thanks to effective training, tenacity, and, most importantly, unity, the 60-member Delta-Greeley ESP Association (D/GESPA) walked out of its 2009 bargaining round with salary increases over three years, not to mention a bump in district contributions to their health care coverage.
All this after the district came to the talks armed with a 0-0-0 proposal and a list of takeaways, including a cut in ESP workdays.
“It was looking a bit tough,” recalls Andrea Lemons, a speech-language therapy aide, serving on her first bargaining team. “But we were ready.”
Strengthening the ESP resolve was the united front they had formed with the Delta-Greely Education Association. Many teachers discovered how little ESPs make (average salary: $20,000),
and grew concerned that probable turnover would directly impact their own classrooms.
Solidarity can be vigorously tested when the school district tries to bait one party over the other, but Delta/Greely educators resisted these attempts.
“Our alliance with the teachers was critical,” Lemons says. “We all knew each other and understood that we were all in this together. Our job was to stay strong and stay united.”
“Even though there were separate contracts being negotiated,” adds Stephanie Slette, a language arts teacher at Fort Greely Middle School, “We all attended training and bargaining committee meetings, held district-wide informational meetings, and sat at the bargaining table as one large team. The certified staff in Delta/Greely realize the positive impact ESPs make on students and within the district, and this is one way we tried to show our support for them.”
D/GESPA was also empowered with organizing tools acquired from Living Wage training sessions conducted by NEA-Alaska. Lemons credits the sessions with helping the ESPs shape a more sophisticated, confident message—one that would rally the community to their cause, but also bring pressure to bear at the bargaining table. They knew what impact the district’s proposal would have not only on them, but on students’ education and the entire community. It was their job to help the district understand the consequences as well.
“Bargaining and mediation is a contentious process,” Lemons explains. “But I never thought the district was attacking or belittling us. They just came to the table believing that salary increases were simply not possible in this climate and that our schools wouldn’t be unduly harmed. They were wrong and we had to help them see that.”
It worked. In 2010, after a grueling mediation process, the ESPs and teachers ratified new three-year con-tracts that provide both with a bonus in the first year and a 2 percent salary increase in the second and third years. And on top of that—no takebacks.
With this victory, Delta/Greely educators believe they can move on to new bargaining rounds with a proven, winning strategy, fortified by NEA-Alaska’s burgeoning statewide Living Wage campaign.
“We’ve come out of this process more confident and more empowered,” says Lemons. “ESPs and teachers will be just as united in our message. We won’t be asking for favors. This is about doing the right thing for our schools and our students.”