Photo by Brad Perkins
In Minneapolis, a newly elected crop of Education Support Professionals, or ESPs, are riding a wave of social justice unionism a movement seen most prominently within the St. Paul, Chicago and Los Angeles teachers unions. In Chicago, the union has been at the forefront of pushing past narrow union concerns around salaries and benefits by linking its fate to that of other economic and racial justice movements, such as the “Fight for $15” campaign. In Los Angeles, in 2014, a slate of progressive teacher union candidates won all twenty five of the union leadership spots they were vying for.
Seattle, New York and other cities have also had social justice union candidates win leadership roles and help set more progressive, activist union agendas such as the fight against standardized testing in Seattle, and the move to boost member participation in union elections in New York City (where a recent twenty four percent voter turnout rate was seen as a victory, up from just eighteen percent in 2013).
Until now, this movement has been absent from Minneapolis a city long known for its Portland like progressive politics. Over 1,700 ESPs work in the Minneapolis Public Schools. These people are the frontline staff, working closely with kids as bus and lunch aides, classroom assistants, and recess monitors. One third of them are people of color. For comparison’s sake, there are over 3,000 teachers working in Minneapolis, and just under twenty percent are people of color.
The ESPs have their own union, under the umbrella of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. And now, thanks to an election held in early May, the ESPs have a whole new slate of leaders who want to invigorate a union they say is too complacent, too ineffective and too willing to settle for next to nothing. .
Meet the new bosses, who are, so far, nothing like the old bosses.
Shaun Laden has been a classroom assistant, or Associate Educator, at Minneapolis’s Jefferson Elementary School for the past five years. Starting this summer, he will be the new president of the ESP union, after defeating incumbent candidate Linnea Hackett. Hackett has been the head of the union for the last eight years, in a style that has struck Laden as less about activism and agency, and more about letting members know about discounts on insurance, and other business related benefits. “There has been no sense of letting people know about the power of a union, or helping them see that they can fight back for the schools they want,” Laden says. In his view, this passivity has allowed the district to run roughshod over the ESPs. “The Minneapolis Public Schools is saying that being an ESP is a ‘transition job,’ for young people with a college degree. But we are saying no these are critical jobs. We want people to make a living wage, and be able to make a career out of it. Our members care about kids and are passionate about their jobs, but we are not paying them a living wage.”
Example: the average ESP makes $23,000 per year, and does not get paid when school is out, for any reason. Many ESPs have to use their vacation pay just to cover the typical two week winter break. By the time spring break rolls around, they are out of vacation time, and out of luck. With no holiday or vacation pay left, they have to go for a week without getting paid.
“That’s why many of our members work two or three jobs, just to get by,” Laden points out.
Another example? A few years ago, Laden says the Minneapolis schools created a new “security monitor” position. It used to be a union position, starting at about $18 per hour. Now, the position is nonunionized, and the security monitors start at $12 an hour. “On paper,” Laden insists, “these security monitors are only supposed to have minimal contact with students, and are instead supposed to be sitting at security check in points. But, in reality, if you have fights breaking out in a school, these folks are there, getting involved, and spending more time with students than they are supposed to.”
All of this adds up to an ongoing deprofessionalization of what ESPs do, according to Laden. He doesn’t have to tell any of this to Sheila Crabbe. Along with Laden and several other likeminded candidates, she will be a new executive board member for the ESP union, and she is ready to shake things up. Crabbe recently returned to work in the district after a self imposed six week break, or “health strike,” as she calls it. (Crabbe also recently won a spot on the governing board for the statewide teachers union, Education Minnesota.)
She is a special education assistant at Minneapolis’s Jefferson Elementary School, where almost one hundred percent of the students live in poverty, according to federal standards. The school is so dusty, Crabbe says, that every time she walks through the door, often on the heels of one of the special ed students she oversees, she has an asthma attack. “I am allergic to dust,” she notes, saying her body goes into panic mode inside the school.
Her doctor agrees with her: her workplace is making her sick. But it’s not just about dust. “We don’t have enough custodians. There aren’t enough people to clean our schools; that’s why teachers and kids are coughing all the time,” Crabbe says directly.
“The ESP leadership has forgotten its power. I have only been in the district five years, and I have coworkers with twenty years in the district still working three jobs, on food stamps, in Section 8 housing. It didn’t take me long to figure out that things need to change.”
But why stick with the union? It’s a fair question in today’s world of billionaire-backed education reform, where unions are repeatedly named as part of an oppressive “status quo,” standing in the way of meaningful change.
Crabbe does talk openly about the dysfunction of the business as usual union model, with union leadership making six figure salaries while most people in her position make barely enough to survive, not to mention the lack of support she says she has felt as a young African American woman trying to find her way.
Still, she believes that unions are the “foundation of the middle class.” Crabbe uses a sense of history to reclaim what she sees as the potential and promise of unions: “We deserve to have breaks. We deserve to see our families. We need to be respected more.” And, she won’t be fooled by anti-union arguments:
“I am protecting my rights, because as soon as I become an at will employee, it’s a laugh, and we ain’t going. Wisconsin has been bullied. We aren’t going to become that.”
“They are coming for the educators’ unions,” Crabbe insists. “If we don’t stand up now, it will fall apart. The middle class will fall apart, we might as well be pushed to the lower classes.”
It is too soon to tell where the new candidates will take Minneapolis’s ESP union, but Laden says his first priority, beyond helping members realize that they have a real stake in what their union does, is to join the Fight for $15 efforts going on in the Twin Cities. “This impacts our workers,” Laden declared, “and it is a way for us to support the students and families we serve.
Living wage jobs are very important for our families.” Laden clearly knows what he is up to:
“This is social justice, 21st century unionism. We are moving beyond a traditional contract campaign model and joining other unions, for the broader benefit this will bring.”
Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English instructor. She blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.