The Macomb ISD Federation of Paraprofessionals, AFT Local 6216, represents about 300 paras working with special education students in fourteen sites across Macomb County. Being scattered across the county creates serious organizing challenges, but the local has maintained an impressive 95% dues-paying membership since switching to alternative dues collection and entering the open shop. If anything, the local is stronger and more visible in worksites and the community, not only maintaining membership but also demonstrating “Union Pride” at every opportunity.
When asked to explain the success of the Macomb Paras in navigating the turbulent waters of alternative dues collection and “right to work,” President Jeff Whittle is quick to credit Treasurer Jamie Hill and the rest of the local’s leadership team. “I’ve learned so much working together with Jamie…The communication and trust within our whole team has been key…we had a really consistent message and knew we were all on the same page.”
Reflecting on how she helped members understand the transition to alternative dues, Jamie Hill said, “It’s not really about money. We asked people to make a decision to remain members and then followed up with them to make that happen. I always say, ‘This is about you belonging and being part of our union.’”
The local started early to be prepared for the transition–cleaning up membership lists, making sure all worksites had reps, and gathering personal contact info. As part of the AFT Michigan LEAD Program, the leadership team committed to a year of strategic planning within a supportive community with other locals and AFT Michigan staff. In particular, the Paras worked closely with the teacher local at the ISD (AFT Local 2144) to develop a shared plan to ensure members of both locals heard the same things about dues collection. As they explored options for alternative dues collection, they let everyone know a change was coming, eventually deciding to use the AFT Billhighway system.
Once the two locals chose Billhighway as their dues platform, they developed a range of informational materials–from handouts to YouTube videos–and worked closely with building reps to make sure they were comfortable with the system. “Taylor (Monday, an AFT Michigan organizer working with the local as part of the LEAD program) was super helpful doing 1-on-1 training with reps so they could practice before we went out to the buildings and then coaching to make sure people felt comfortable,” reflected Jamie.
Looking back, Jamie and Jeff listed a number of lessons learned that they would recommend to other locals:
- Keep things as simple as possible: Members can pay one of two ways – monthly bank draft via BillHighway or writing a check for the whole year in advance, limiting the complications for leaders and members alike.
- Repeat key messages over and over: At every opportunity, members were told that dues were going to change from “a line on your check to a line on your bank account” and reminded of deadlines and other key information.
- Take care of your lists: The local established a clear set of protocols involving the treasurer, secretary, president and vice president to make sure any new hire, retirement, dues change, etc. is accurately reflected in the local’s database. They were lucky to have a treasurer already comfortable with spreadsheets (who says she has learned a lot more in the process!) and everyone shared ownership of maintaining accurate lists. Jamie regularly shares worksite-level lists with reps to ensure that all the key people are on the same page.
- Build a strong team: Perhaps most importantly, the local’s leadership team has built strong relationships based on trust and reciprocity. Jamie and Jeff both described feeling confident that whoever a member asked a question, they’d get the same response and that they could count on each other even when the transition felt overwhelming. Jamie highlighted Taylor Monday’s role in “confidence-building, team-building and organizing [through the LEAD program]…never one to judge the process, only there to improve upon it.”
- Treat members as adults: The leadership team was open with members about the choices they were making from the start as well as their expectations for members to help make the system work. More recently, that has meant encouraging members to proactively contact Jamie if they know they are going to have an issue paying in a given month to work out a plan. This openness seems to have helped people get over the awkwardness that often gets in the way when talking about money.
- Focus on the larger group, not potential “problem people”: Jeff reflected on how Jamie has helped him grow as a leader by reminding him not to get fixated on potential problems or complaints, instead building a good system and then dealing with the inevitable issues that come up through open communication and the union’s core principles.
- Learn and adjust: After discovering that it was a bit overwhelming to both start the Billhighway year and collect checks from people all in September, the local adjusted the policy and now check-payers turn in their payment when their program ends for the year–just one example of learning from experience and implementing a change to help the system run better.
Just like many of our members who do an amazing job working with students but don’t recognize how impressive their work is, Jeff and Jamie don’t necessarily see their efforts as anything extraordinary. In a way, that’s the most important lesson of all–any local could adapt and implement the strategies that the Macomb Paras have used to maintain 95% membership to strengthen their own union. Their example shows us all how much is possible when a strong team of committed people stays focused on a shared plan.