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Education Support Professionals

ESPs Hit the Streets in Clark County

A new NEA training program stresses the power of house calls and other tenets of organizing.


By John Rosales

At 6 a.m. on a Monday in Las Vegas, paraeducator Denise Zender headed to the school bus barn as part of a site visit on behalf of Clark County education support professionals (ESPs). Inside were 20 or so transportation service workers. Some were members of the Clark County Education Support Employees Association (CCESEA). Many were not. And they had their reasons.

Zender and two teammates had brought brochures about the union and a basket of candy, but “they didn’t want anything to do with our candy, much less our union materials,” she says. “One woman looked at me kindly and said, ‘I hate to burst your bubble, honey, but nothing is going to change.’”

Jan Olmstead, president of Puyallup Paraeducators Association (right), and an ESP colleague, get a non-member bus driver in Clark County to sign-up to receive email from the Nevada State Education Association and NEA.

Zender, who’s from Shoreline, Washington, is part of a new NEA national training program that stresses the power of one-on-one organizing by making home and school site visits, building relationships with school staff, and creating awareness for the Association and its push to get ESPs a living wage.

About 170 ESPs from Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada teamed up with 30 UniServ staff members to participate in the three-part training program titled, “Organizing for Power.” In Clark County, that meant organizing for change.

“If a lot of individuals are empowered and unite, they can help create changes in their world,” Zender says. “Alone you have no power.”

The group met for its first three-day session in Seattle in September to learn the tenets of organizing, such as developing leaders and identifying goals. The second session was held in October in Las Vegas. It focused on practical experience. Participants reviewed “walking lists” and neighborhood street routes where ESP members and non-members live. Groups of three and four, including Zender, made more than 150 work site and home visits, trying to recruit new members and drum up union support.

Out of approximately 12,000 support staff in Clark County, the CCESEA represents about 6,500 employees. Recruiting efforts by other unions, threats of privatization, and impending layoffs could lower the retention rate even more.

“Should we fall below 50 percent, the benefits that members have fought for for so long will no longer exist,” says Jorge Rivera, NEA organizational specialist and training facilitator. (See video below).

“By the end of the third training session in January (set for Burlingame, California), participants will have all the tools to understand the principles of organizing that will allow them to successfully engage members and recruit community allies as they embark on living wage campaigns and political activities,” says Rosemary Wolf, ESP organizer for the Washington Education Association (WEA) and a program facilitator.
“I not only want to take action, I want to inspire others to take action,” says Zender, who joined members from 15 locals sent by WEA. “Because without the force of all of us, those who are conspiring to keep us down will continue to do so until we unite with knowledge and say ‘no more.’”

Although she and her colleagues walked away from that Las Vegas bus barn without signing up any new members, Zender refuses to be discouraged. “We concluded that someone from the union has to follow-up,” she says. “We opened the doors and people listened,” she says. “Now, someone has to step in and seal the deal.”

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NEA ESP 2011 Conference, March 11-13, Hilton Washington Hotel, Washington, DC

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