Instructional assistants unionize

Shorewood instructional assistants became the first public-sector union to form since Wisconsin’s 2011 Bill Act 10 changed how most government employees collectively bargain with their employer. The union is referred to as the Shorewood Education Assistants Association (SEAA), and they voted to form the union in December of 2021. There are around 56 instructional assistants working in the district, and most if not all will have the ability to join the union.

Act 10 is a controversial bill that directly impacts teacher’s unions by increasing the proportion of votes necessary to certify and maintain their respective unions, and limiting the terms unions can negotiate with their employer. Although the SEAA’s certification is just now official, the group has been discussing organizing for approximately 15 years, and seven years ago they began meeting with the school superintendent on a monthly basis to discuss their needs and working conditions. The union is led by co-presidents Judy Halloran and Jennifer Sanders, both Shorewood residents and parents of past Shorewood graduates. 

“Act 10 did a lot of things and we were very aware of how Act 10 changed our district. However, when we were gathering and meeting and thinking about this, honestly I didn’t even consider the fact that we were going to be the first group to do this. That was never on our radar,” Halloran said.

I didn’t even consider the fact that we would be the first group to do this [post-Act 10],

— Judy Halloran, SEAA co-president

In February of 2020, the group prepared to take an official vote to unionize, but this vote was delayed due to the pandemic. The instructional assistants primarily wanted to unionize to gain a seat at the table to advocate for better working conditions, pay and benefits.

“The reason we organized was for better pay, for better health benefits, to have a benefit package, because a lot of times we will get support staff here and it’s a lot of shifting around because we don’t have great pay and we don’t have great benefits,” Sanders said. 

The pandemic also impacted working conditions for district instructional assistants. The pandemic raised instructional assistant turnover rates, as many in the special education department worked in buildings while most schooling was conducted virtually. Newer demands from the job left some teacher’s assistants rethinking if they wanted to go into this field of work.

“At the elementary schools, it was really kind of a daycare for students who needed that. So support staff were kind of being the daycare workers in the classes while the students were supposed to be doing their asynchronous work — this was before we were in person,” Sanders said. “I’m not sure that the staff was ready for that or trained for that… So possibly they were doing a job that they didn’t sign up for originally but needed to be done and they did it. And most likely they did it for financial reasons because they needed the work.”

Due to other neighboring districts providing health benefits to their instructional assistants, Sanders and Halloran believe that a primary driver of the high instructional assistant turnover rate is a lack of health benefits currently provided. 

“We do lose an amazing number of our staff every year because of better pay or better benefits in other districts,” Sanders said. “If we can stem that and keep a really strong group here, that’s better for students, that’s better for classrooms, that’s better for districts.”

Beyond benefits and increased wages, the group is also interested in involving more instructional assistants in professional development opportunities that other staff members generally have access to.

If there are going to be any budget cuts, we should also have a voice,

— Jennifer Sanders, SEAA co-president

“We just started having those conversations but there’s more to it than just getting paid and having benefits: it’s working conditions, it’s hours, it’s professional development,” Halloran said.

Amid talks of budget cuts on a district level due to a low state budget for education, Halloran and Sanders stress the importance of representing the voices of instructional assistants to district administrators.

“If there are going to be any budget cuts we should also have a voice. So certainly we are being included –– all staff is being included in budget meetings currently with the district,” Sanders said. 

The SEAA was formed with the help of the Shorewood Education Association (SEA), the teacher’s union in the district. The two organizations aim to present themselves as one voice when raising concerns about their work.

“Without the SEA we really couldn’t have done this, honestly. Just having their support and their backing and their knowledge of pulling a union together, obviously connecting us with WEAC [the Wisconsin Education Association Council] was critical for us,” Sanders said.

“I truly believe that [the SEA and the SEAA] have one voice, one goal. We support each other in many ways so definitely we are in this together,” Halloran said.

There has been a growing movement of unionization efforts across the country in all industries. Recently, workers at the local coffee chain Colectivo Coffee voted to form a union, although the election is still being disputed by the company. Halloran hopes to inspire other educators to unionize in their own district, even in the face of Act 10.

“I would encourage people to [unionize], [we are] stronger together,” Halloran said. “You need a voice at the table and Act 10 kind of took that voice away… so it’s nice to get it back and try to be part of the discussion.”