Summer organizing brings the union to its members


Any given weekday last July, Saida Omar could be found knocking on doors in an apartment building or down a street in Minneapolis with a list, a clipboard and a membership form in hand.

That’s because Omar spent her summer as part of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Education Support Professionals summer organizing program.

The program employs five to six ESPs through grant funding. They work part-time, receiving an hourly stipend plus mileage expenses, and meet one-on-one with ESPs about the value of the union.

During the school year, Omar is a family liaison at Jefferson Community School. She was approached by Shaun Laden, the MFT ESP president, to see if she wanted to be a part of the organizing program.

“This is a passion,” Omar said. “I believe the union can represent us.”

This is the MFT ESP local’s third summer with the program, which has received funding from the National Education Association Center for Organizing, as well as Education Minnesota.

“We try to identify new people each summer to participate,” said Laden. “It’s an organizing tool in itself, too. People often go into a building steward role after going through the summer program.”

On average, the union gains 125 new member after the summer organizing blitz.

The organizers get a roster of non-members and reach out in whatever way is most comfortable for them or makes the most sense, whether it’s making phone calls, going door-to-door like Omar or visiting worksites of the summer school programs. 

The organizers get support from Catina Neal, an ESP who works full-time for MFT doing organizing all year.

“I never did door knocking before,” said Omar. “But I asked Catina for help and we went together so I could see how she did it.”

After that Omar said she was door knocking three to four hours a day, three to four times a week.

“I had a lot of people whose addresses and phone numbers were not correct,” she said. “I had to make contact with people three to four times to actually connect with them.”

Hearing from one of their peers about the importance of being a union member is an impactful way to organize, said Tequila Laramee, another summer organizer.

“It was important for them to hear that I was an ESP, too,” she said. “I wasn’t just a ‘union lady.’ I am just like them and I am sharing my experience with the union.”

Sharing her experience with the union is exactly why Marquita Mosby joined the summer organizing program.

“I’ve been in the district 20 years, but I didn’t know what the union stood for until five years ago,” Mosby said. “I get a lot of pushback that people don’t know what the union does for them. But I tell them that we need all voices and how can the union help you if we don’t know what the issues are.”

Not understanding what the union really does for its members was the theme of most of the other organizer’s conversations, too.

“When people would say they don’t think the union does a lot, I would share my experiences,” said Omar. “After I talked with them, only one person really said no.”

Hiring their own members to do the organizing has been a crucial part of the program’s success, said Laden.

“It’s really about mythbusting the status quo of who is a union member,” he said. 

Omar, who is Somali-American, focused on members in her community.

“When I said I worked for the union, people were surprised and think it’s really nice they are employing people like me,” she said. “They don’t always think it’s welcoming.”

Larmee worked directly with ESPs in the Minneapolis Kids school-age child care program, since she has worked in that program.

“Minneapolis Kids employees feel like the union is not for them, because our wages are too low,” she said. “But I am able to talk about what the union has been doing specifically for Minneapolis Kids.”

Mosby knows that being a part of a team is what is best for all ESPs.

Her worksite, Olson Middle School, has 100 percent ESP membership.

“Most people just want more information,” she said. “I stress the importance of us all being one.”

Funding and organizing grants available: 
Education Minnesota: www.educationminnesota.org/members-only/member-engagement/Resources 
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NEA: www.nea.org/grants/62027.htm