"U & I in Union:" Organizing the Strength to "Survive"

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Vernita Grasty (top, right in photo above) has worked in several education support positions in Norwalk Public Schools and currently serves as a parent outreach coordinator at Ponus Ridge Middle School. Patricia McCormick (top, left) has held a wide variety of roles in the district and today manages the main office at Fox Run Elementary School as secretary to the principal. Yvonne Rodriquez (bottom, right) has also served the community's students and fellow staff in various positions before her current placement as a secretary at Ponus Ridge.
 
Between them, these veteran members of our AFT Connecticut-affiliated Norwalk Federation of Education Personnel have over six decades of combined classroom and school support experience. Despite their invaluable contributions, all three earlier this year found their positions at risk when district officials announced significant budget cuts. 
 
Click here for press reporting on the superintendent's initial proposals.
 
While layoffs and involuntary transfers had been floated and even carried out in the past, Grasty said, "this time it was very different; this time it was real."
 
Union leaders began organizing a collective response even as the number of non-certified support staff threatened with elimination quickly escalated. They first set their sights on the local board of education (BOE), mobilizing though "all kinds of communications," according to Rodriguez, who also serves as the local's vice president. 
 
"We began with our worksite leaders," said Hope Coles (bottom, left in photo), who serves as president of the local union. "We told them how important it was to have members come out to the board meetings. It starts by showing how important our jobs are to us," added Coles, who works as the administrative assistant to Ponus Ridge's principal.
 
McCormick said she "decided to be part of the action," despite contractual seniority rights that all but assured her another position even if hers was eliminated. She donned a union tee-shirt, grabbed a sign and joined dozens of her colleagues in late March at the first school board meeting following the initial announced cuts.
 
"I did not want to be among those who later ended up in a job that they would have preferred not," she said.
 
Click here for press reporting on members' activism in response to the first round of proposed layoffs.
 
That initial effort had a positive impact, according to Coles, who said that the BOE "began to take us seriously." It opened the door to several months of negotiations which Coles and her leadership team focused on averting layoffs amid a worsening budgetary climate.
 
By the end of the school year, when a resolution seemed out of reach, the number of non-certified personnel layoffs had ballooned to 80. That's when union leaders mobilized a "march" on the superintendent's office demanding a meeting in order to force a settlement.
 
"They knew that we were strong in that moment," said Rodriguez. 
 
For Grasty, who was on the layoff list and new to union activism, the action was both an uplifting and empowering experience. She said that "having people back you in unity" provided her with a new sense of gratitude toward her colleagues.
 
Click here for a photo of members after marching on the superintendent’s office.
 
The effort, together with a formal grievance filed immediately afterward, generated a quick response. Within days the first in a series of new meetings were scheduled with high-level school administrators.
 
"Our ultimate goal was to make a point," said Coles. "The members who jobs they were planning to cut had invested their lives in the district; the district should have the same investment into their lives."
 
Negotiations continued over the summer and produced a mutually agreed-upon resolution for keeping all 80 members employed before the 2018-19 school year began.
 
For Rodriguez, who faced a layoff three years earlier and was among those slated for elimination this time around, the experience offers an important lesson. "You never know what's going to happen to you in the future,” she said, adding, "if we want to survive, we have to be together."
 
Click here to watch Grasty, McCormick, Rodriguez and Coles share more on how they mobilized their colleagues to save jobs threatened by austerity budget policies.
 
Similar crises have erupted over the past year in more than a dozen local districts across the state, from Ansonia to Meriden and from New Haven to Windham. Grasty, McCormick and Rodriguez' story offers hope in dark times for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRP) union members who still face precarious employment and economic security.
 
Click here for more on our "U & I in Union" campaign to protect a voice on the job for all working people.