In December, after several bargaining sessions with members of Office and Professional Employees Local 12, negotiators for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school system put their best and final offer on the table.

Turns out, it was neither District 622’s best nor its final offer.

That’s because members of Local 12, who work as nurses, educational assistants and clerical staff, decided for the first time in Kelly Riemenschneider’s 19 years with the district to go get what they deserve.

“You get pretty used to hearing, ‘This is the best we can do for you,’ and sitting back and going, ‘well, OK,’” said Riemenschneider, an office nurse and union steward. “This time we didn’t. Sometimes you need to do that. You need to stand up for yourself.”

Members of Local 12’s bargaining team decided to take their frustrations to the school board. They targeted the Dec. 17 meeting and put together a plan to turn out as many supporters as possible.

Stewards like Riemenschneider began spreading word to the union’s 130 members, who work in 15 different buildings. Local 12 also reached out to unions that represent other workers in the district, including Education Minnesota, Service Employees Local 284 and Operating Engineers Local 70.

The St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, which unites over 100 local unions in the east metro, put out a call for solidarity among its affiliates, too.

The organizing effort paid off, as a standing-room-only crowd greeted school board members at their meeting. Local 12 members in the room held up signs reading, “We deserve a fair contract!”

When board members opened the meeting to public comment, Cathy DeGlusti, an elementary nurse, described the critical work she and other Local 12 members do for the district. Each year, DeGlusti said, the district expects them to absorb more students and more responsibilities into their workload, but balks at giving those same workers an annual raise.

“It saddens me,” DeGlusti said. “We all work very hard at taking care of the students. We care about their well-being in every aspect of their lives.”

The show of solidarity, Riemenschneider said, had an impact.

“I could see by look on their faces that school board members were very surprised,” she said. “Just seeing us there, it spoke volumes that this is important to us, and you need to remember we are here and we are important.”

Lo and behold, the message trickled down to the district’s bargaining team, too. The next time Local 12 and District 622 met, they were able to reach tentative agreements on new contracts for both of the union’s bargaining units.

“The district moved significantly on wages, health care and language we wanted in the contracts,” Local 12 representative Jim Niland said. “The district also agreed to move everyone in the clerical unit up to $15 an hour, which was one of our demands going into bargaining.”

Was the district’s change of heart a happy coincidence? Riemenschneider doubts it.

“The big thing I’ve learned from this experience is something we’re always trying to teach our students,” she said. “We want them to be as independent as they can be, to advocate for themselves. Well, if I’m teaching that, why am I not taking that advice for myself?

“So that’s what we did, and it was a really good experience.”

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