Amid The Pandemic, Ledyard School Paras Say "Union Yes!"

June 22, 2020--Ledyard School Paraprofessionals have not let the COVID-19 crisis prevent them from gaining a real voice on the job, as evidenced by their decisive vote to join Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union representing 30,000 workers across the state.

The Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations certified the election results on June 11, 2020. The vote was 82-7 in favor of the union. The new bargaining unit is made up of 130 paraprofessionals – the vast majority of whom are women – across five Ledyard public schools.

The union representation election marked the first for AFSCME Council 4 that was conducted entirely through mail-in ballots – a process necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have goosebumps,” exclaimed Denise Dittrich, a Gallup Hill School paraprofessional for 12 years, upon sharing the news with her colleagues. “I am so excited that we as Ledyard paraprofessionals can feel like part of a team instead of feeling separated. It is not one school that did this—it is a whole group of people. Everybody worked together.”

“I am so excited. I never thought it would happen, and it happened,” added Elizabeth Malone, a Ledyard paraprofessional for 15 years currently with Gales Ferry School. “It was everyone helping each other out. We are all so proud.”

Ledyard Paraprofessionals began organizing for a union in January. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools closed, they communicated using emails, texting, and social media and continued encouraging colleagues to sign cards indicating support for unionization. Once the unit collected enough cards required by the State Board to file a petition for unionization, they got creative to keep people involved.

Ledyard Special Education Paraprofessional Lori Burton (Gales Ferry School K-2) is getting "flocked".

“We had weekly Zoom meetings to build camaraderie with all the paraprofessionals from grades Pre-K to high school,” explained Kimberly Hope, a paraprofessional at Juliet Long School for 3 years. “We also organized a food drive to benefit Ledyard families.”

Paraprofessionals also “flocked” each other’s yards with flamingos painted in the AFSCME color green as a symbol of unity and solidarity. And, they arranged two car parades from the high school to the local post office so they could mail their ballots and vote together. The workers wore “I Voted” stickers, chanted, honked horns, and had signs attached to their cars displaying pride for Ledyard paras.

Ledyard Paraprofessionals are now part of Council 4, a diverse union with members in state and local government, boards of education and the private non-profit sector. Council 4 is affiliated with the 1.4 million-member AFSCME International Union in Washington, D.C.

Only a handful of other AFSCME-affiliated organizing campaigns are occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Council 4 Organizing Director Kelly Martinez, this particular campaign was a reflection of the Ledyard Paraprofessionals’ determination and dedication.

“This campaign was truly driven by the paraprofessionals. They are strong leaders and took the initiative,” Martinez commented. “The diligence by the organizing committee to educate their co-workers certainly paid off. The paraprofessionals decided to be at the table and not on the menu when it came to their responsibilities as advocates for the students.”   

When the 2020-21 school year begins later this summer, Ledyard paraprofessionals expect to arrive to a changed school environment, not just from the challenges presented by COVID-19, but because they have emerged as a more cohesive group who believe in their worth.

L to R: Ledyard Paras Kimberly Hope & Paula Duckworth 

“As paraprofessionals, our job is not insignificant,” Hope said. “We are a vital entity in cultivating students’ growth and learning. We all recognized the need to be supported for the type of impact we have on all the students daily. The union will help provide the voice for our needs and support for a more unified partnership within the school system to better the students’ educational learning and development. We are eager to move forward onto the next steps.”