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“U & I in Union:” Winning Labor Peace in the Workplace

Sandra Powell (above, right) is a paraeducator at Hartford Public High School where for the past three and a half years she has provided students with vital classroom services. Until recently she supported those with special needs in a “one-on-one” capacity in the school’s Law and Government Academy.
As part of a special education team of more than a dozen paraeducators and certified teachers, Powell learned firsthand the importance of collaboration and consultation among her colleagues.
“It’s very important to be on the same page,” said Powell, a delegate with our AFT Connecticut-affiliated Hartford Federation of Paraeducators. “There are decisions that have to be made for our students that should be made together,” she added.
As many as a third of the students enrolled at the “Pub,” as it’s known, depend on special education services. “Many need a ‘para’ at all times,” she said.
Click here for reporting on the academy’s 2017 graduating class featuring stories of several seniors whose educators helped them overcome adversity.
As Powell explained, when collegiality is absent among educators, “it’s not possible to reach agreement” on any number of issues relating to their students. It can also lead to a “toxic” working environment, as she experienced firsthand. 
A series of incidents in which a senior colleague disrespected Powell in front of students and fellow staff left her feeling “devalued” on the job. 
Despite her strong belief in advocating for her student’s needs, Powell said the unprofessional conduct only intensified the more she spoke out. “I honestly thought that was part of my job,” she added.
Powell’s worst fears materialized when she found herself falsely accused of being inappropriate with a student. That’s when she reached out to local leadership for help.
Recognizing the urgency, union co-president Shellye Davis (above, left) went to the Pub to engage in direct dialog with the school’s new principal. As she explained, she exercised negotiated contractual rights to “meet as needed to discuss matters of general concern.”
Davis said exploring the possibility of reaching a resolution before resorting to the next level of escalation —a formal grievance — had the potential to yield more timely results for Powell. She was able to convince management to convene an immediate conference with all parties to discuss the accusation and seek a mutual resolution.
Click here for the relevant language in our Hartford paras’ current collective bargaining agreement.
“These are the sort of things we do for our members,” said Davis, a veteran para in the capital city’s Moylan Expeditionary Learning Academy. “We make sure management understands that we should all be on the same team when it comes to educating our children.”
“So when there are bumps in the road — whether they’re big or little ones — we need to find a way to come together,” Davis added. “That’s what we did, through a couple of informal meetings in which we worked it out.”
The approach not only averted what could have been a prolonged process for Powell but facilitated a transfer within the Pub to the school’s Academy of Nursing and Health Sciences.
“If it wasn’t for my union’s intervention, I probably wouldn’t still be there,” said Powell. “The stress was simply too much, and I certainly couldn’t afford a lawyer,” she added.
For Powell, the experience demonstrated the true value of membership; “priceless.”
Click here to watch Powell and Davis share more on how rights codified in their union contract enabled a mutually agreeable solution.
While learning to deal effectively with difficult colleagues is a near-universal workplace experience, Powell’s story reminds union members that ridicule and disrespect doesn’t have to be. All our affiliates’ collective bargaining agreements contain language for addressing conflict resolution, a benefit rooted in the movement’s early battles to achieve “labor peace” with employers.
That peace, particularly in the nation’s public sector, faces its greatest threat in decades as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs a decision in a special interest-backed lawsuit.
Click here for more on our “U & I in Union” campaign’s efforts to counter the impact of an adverse ruling in the case.

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