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Ten Living Wage Communications Tips

It's All About ESPs Telling Their Own Stories

To win a living wage for education support professionals (ESPs), you've got to "win the hearts and minds" of the community they serve. That's common-sense advice from NEA state and local affiliates -- and other labor organizations -- that have pursued and won pay increases that better reflect the value of ESP work. Here, from the trenches, are 10 valuable communications tips for any living wage campaigner.

1. First and foremost: Elect good school board members.

Says Bernie Mulligan, a veteran communicator with the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT): "If you're not involved in the election of school board members in your community, you're limiting your opportunity to communicate with them in an effective way about a living wage. Superintendents sometimes control information and access to board members -- and constantly shape their perceptions."

2. Strengthen community connections.

Before taking a living wage campaign public, advises Mulligan, it's important to assess the strength of the local Association and its community roots. Starting from the personal connections of individual ESPs, build two-way relationships with parents, other unions, community and business groups, and faith communities.

"The thing to remember," says New York State paraeducator Debbie Minnick, "is that you make those partnerships and relationships ahead of time. Then when you need them, you're able to call on them, and vice versa. You keep those relationships going because your partners are going to want to be able to use your backing as well. It's just kind of a circle that keeps going."

3. Know who your ESP members are.

ESPs tend to live in the districts in which they work and have deep roots there. Survey ESP members on the work they do, their years of service, and their leadership roles in community groups. List family connections in the community, children or grandchildren attending local schools, individual commendations and awards, special talents, specialized training/qualifications for the job, and even the number of unused ESP sick days.

4. Ask ESPs about what they're proudest.

It might be their impact on student achievement, the "hidden" ways they reach and inspire young people, or the contributions they make to the community in which they live and work. Tally this information for an Association communications campaign that can give parents and community residents a full picture of the value that ESPs add to schools and their community.

5. Develop a communications plan.

Consider the living wage campaign's overall goal. Identify the decision makers you need to influence, and spot the people whose support will be needed to achieve a living wage. Who can help you reach those people, and who will try to stop you? How will you allocate resources to a communications campaign? How will you persuade potential allies to join the campaign and how will you neutralize adversaries?

6. Develop your salary message.

Members, potential allies, and the public need to understand the living wage issue. Develop a theme and message that explains it simply (such as "It's All About Fairness"), and then publicize it, repeat it, and disseminate it widely -- being direct and positive.

7. Collect your best arguments for a living wage.

Some examples:

8. Be ready for the counterarguments.

Assess local attitudes towards schools, educators, and the concept of a living wage. Prepare to deal with arguments against a living wage from community members, employers, and school board members. Role-playing can be helpful in preparing answers to refute counterarguments.

9. Gear up ESPs to tell their own stories.

Bus driver John Boggs, a leader of the Kentucky Education Association's (KEA) Eastern Kentucky Living Wage Campaign, thinks that the biggest factor behind the campaign's momentum is communications by ESPs themselves, "who let people know what's going on" with low pay.

Organizers should pick the brains of ESPs about their work and life experiences, adds NYSUT's Bernie Mulligan. "That's the raw material for a campaign message, and we need ESP spokespeople for a campaign," he points out. "It's really a question of figuring out how to humanize and personalize the theme of fairness."

10. Take the living wage message public.

Veteran campaigners stress the need to identify public education supporters in the community and work with state affiliate communications staff on strategies to move the living wage message to them -- through meetings or the media. Some useful advice from the Virginia Education Association  and other organizations that tackle living wage issues:

--Dave Winans, NEA Collective Bargaining & Member Advocacy, November 2006