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PSI embraces educational support staff

Members of AFT's PSRP division and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson joined Public Services International, the global public service workers union, to help kick off its new endeavor, the Educational Support and Cultural Workers Network, at its founding meeting Nov. 18 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The two labor organizations stood in solidarity with school support workers around the world to create a new structure for addressing such urgent issues as funding for public education, job security, privatization and the right to organize among public school support staff.

"We agreed it was time to shine a light on the hidden workforce in education," Johnson told conference participants. "The union's job is to shine a light and let the world know how important their work is to our global education system."

Lorretta Johnson at PSIAlthough this is the first time PSI has partnered with the PSRP division, the international union has worked with the AFT for two decades, advocating for fair compensation and working conditions for the world's public services. PSI members—20 million women and men—deliver such crucial services as clean water and accessible healthcare, and PSI represents their interests by advocating for human rights, social justice and universal access to high-quality public services. It has working groups organized around energy, essential services, health, public administration, and water and sanitation.

Now PSI is reaching out to PSRPs, formalizing a structure for the hundreds of thousands of educational support workers that PSI affiliates already represent. Among this growing group of PSI members are office employees, custodians, maintenance workers, bus drivers, instructional paraprofessionals, food service workers, school nurses and health aides, nursery workers, technicians, groundskeepers, secretaries, bookkeepers, mechanics, special education assistants and hundreds more.

These people often work without job security, fair compensation and benefits, or recognition that their services are vital to providing high-quality public education. Their jobs are frequently the first to be threatened by privatization, when corporations take over and ignore workers’ rights in the name of profit. They are also frequently deprived of the right to form a union and collectively bargain their terms and conditions of service.

At the founding meeting, the Educational Support and Cultural Workers Network created its first charter and work plan. The plan is designed to:

  • Encourage solidarity with affiliates struggling to assert and exercise their rights of free association and collective bargaining;
  • Support affiliates that are actively organizing and mobilizing educational support and cultural workers;
  • Conduct strategic research on the global political and private sector interests responsible for the attacks on public sector jobs and unions; and
  • Coordinate campaigns to defend the rights and interests of educational support and cultural workers around the world as well as improve the quality of public education for all.

The meeting also included panel discussions involving AFT PSRP leaders: Ma'Lena Wirth, vice president of the Oregon School Employees Association, spoke on the impact of privatization on educational support workers and the quality of the services they provide; Sandra Davis, a PSRP leader in the Baltimore Teachers Union, discussed how to use professional development to turn precarious employment into job security and organizing opportunities; and Ruby Newbold, an AFT vice president and president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees, described the impact of austerity on educational support systems.

Combining forces with PSI will strengthen the mission to represent workers like our AFT members worldwide, said Johnson. "To quote a wise proverb, 'sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.' Those words could not be more true today. The best and brightest days for workers and their families and our global community are ahead of us, not behind us."

[Virginia Myers/PSI photo]