At PFSP, a surge in member involvement leads to contract wins


A revolt that began last year among rank-and-file members of the Portland Federation of School Professionals (PFSP) has culminated in the best contract the union has won in years. PFSP, also known as American Federation of Teachers Local 111, represents more than 1,350 Portland Public Schools workers in more than 60 occupational classifications, including school secretaries, teaching assistants, campus safety associates, and paraeducators. With compensation hovering around $30,000 a year, they’re some of the district’s lowest paid employees.

Last April, PFSP got an infusion of energy when members started getting active in the union’s newly formed contract action team. A contract action team is an internal organizing committee made up of rank-and-file union members who volunteer to prepare their coworkers to take collective action. PFSP’s team started with five members, but within a few months, it counted as many as 55 members.

PFSP members were spoiling for action. At one school board meeting, members showed up in T-shirts with their hourly wage written on the front and their years of service on the back. Contract action team members organized rallies, held meetings to update members about bargaining, and gathered 1,000 member signatures to be displayed during negotiations. The team got inspiration, help, and training from members and leaders of the teachers union, Portland Jobs with Justice, and SEIU Local 503, which represents custodians.

With negotiations taking place during working hours, members felt in the dark and out of the loop. So the team arranged that sessions be recorded, with  links sent to members so they could watch them afterward. Team members organized viewing parties to watch the videos, one at a pizzeria.

“That opened our eyes to the dynamic,” said Charlotte Fisher, a paraeducator at Pioneer Special School Program who joined the contract action team. “It’s an abusive relationship…. We kind of had a front row to our bargaining team just being treated horribly and having to take it.”

In September, the union bargaining team reached tentative agreement on a new contract, but newly active members organized a “vote no” campaign, saying the district’s offer of 3% raises would lock in the losses in purchasing power they suffered over several years of high inflation. Members voted it down on Sept. 22 by 51% to 49%. A second tentative agreement also failed.

As bargaining dragged on, longtime PFSP leaders Michelle Batten and John MacDuffee departed, creating opportunities for new leaders to step forward. In October, Ockley Green Middle School paraeducator Elizabeth Held became interim president; she’ll serve at least until union officer elections in June.

Then Portland teachers went on strike in November, and the district rankled PFSP members by ordering some to lead online groups coaching students with reading.

Once teachers won raises of 6.25%, 4.5%, and 3%, PFSP members were determined to fight for the same.

In the end, their contract comes close to what PAT won for its members: The three-year agreement provides an immediate 6.25% increase retroactive to July 1, 2023, followed by 4% July 1, 2024, and 3% July 1, 2025. The agreement runs through June 30, 2026. On Feb. 8, members voted overwhelmingly to ratify it. 

Seeing what happened when the rank-and-file got active, members of the contract action team are already looking to build on that progress in the next contract.

“Previously not many people were involved, and pressure was put on the union president, which shouldn’t even be the case,” said Yasmin Correa, a paraeducator at Boise-Eliot/Humboldt Elementary School. “I think now that’s going to change.”


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