State of the Union from President Sarah Wofford

In her first State of the Union address, OSEA President Sarah Wofford celebrated membership gains, bargaining wins and legislative victories – and the OSEA members who made it all possible.

Transcript of President Sarah Wofford's State of the Union speech:

Good morning, OSEA!

Thank you all for being here. It is exciting to be in this room with hundreds of my favorite people! There is nothing better than getting together with our OSEA family and I am honored to share this weekend with you.

Before we dive into the state of the union and everything we have been through and all we have accomplished since we got together last June, I’d like to ask for a round of applause for you, our delegates. You all are AMAZING!

Being an OSEA member is like being in my favorite movie, Rocky – We are the classified underdogs. The unsung heroes. The underestimated. No one expects us to be a contender.

But OSEA members continuously punch above our weight class. Every day, we fight against the odds for ourselves, our coworkers and our students. No matter what punches life throws at us, we keep standing and we keep fighting. And like Rocky, we win our fights on our own terms, not by someone else’s standards of success. We win by going the distance!

OSEA members are an inspiration. YOU are an inspiration. It takes a special person to know there is nothing better than spending three days with your fellow members digging into all the business that makes our union tick.

The work we do at Conference is vital. It is the core of who we are as OSEA members. Not just the official business like resolutions and elections – which are absolutely essential – but also the time we spend together. This is what makes OSEA more than a union – we are a family.

At Conference, we build community and friendships. We get to know each other, and know that we can rely on one another. Like Rocky running up the steps, this weekend we are training and preparing for the fights ahead of us, together. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!

This weekend, I have been OSEA president for exactly one year. One amazing, inspiring, incredibly challenging and unbelievably rewarding year.

When I ran for this position, I told you that my mission was to be inclusive. I wanted every member to know that OSEA is a union for all of us. I wanted to reach out to more members in Eastern Oregon, Central Oregon and Southern Oregon – where I’m from – and bring in more members who work for organizations other than school districts – hey, that’s me, too! As I said, OSEA is a family, and we have room for everyone.

It has been so exciting, over the last year, to see the new faces at chapter meetings and rallies, and even more coming to state events like LED and Conference. In fact, this is the first Conference for 80 delegates in this room! How cool is that? Can I ask all of our first time delegates to stand? Let’s give them a round of applause!

Whether this is your first Conference or your 85th, welcome. Thank you. I am glad you’re here.

I have been able to stand alongside so many rockstar OSEA members this year, from my fellow Board members to our intrepid chapter leaders. From longtime members who are the backbone of our union to the new members who bring fresh ideas. We all bring something to the table, our own unique sparkle, and together, we SHINE.

And now that we are together again for Conference, I am happy to tell you that the state of our union is strong. We have faced more than our fair share of challenges in the last year. I have no doubt that we will face more in the future. After the last few years, we may be battered and bruised, but we are still standing. We go the distance!

The Board and staff started this year by launching an ongoing strategic planning process. We looked at OSEA’s strengths and opportunities, areas for growth and the challenges we anticipate. A main priority that emerged from this process is a renewed focus on member outreach and engagement. We set a goal of welcoming two thousand, four hundred new members statewide.

With our national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, also known as AFT, we created a program to support outreach in our chapters. AFT’s “organizing mini grants,” as we named them, provided financial support for chapter activities. And what happened next was amazing!

Chapter leaders and activists took the program and ran with it, coming up with creative events and engagement strategies.

Across the state, our chapters held membership drives, chapter events, new employee orientations and more. And it worked!

Since last July, we have welcomed more than two thousand, six hundred new members to OSEA, surpassing the goal of two thousand, four hundred set by the Board. That is an average of more than seven new members each day.

Even better, I am excited to report that we have more members today than we did a year ago, ending a five-year trend in membership declines.

Let me take a minute to put this in perspective. We have known for a long time that membership declines are not due to high rates of cancellations, or the activities of anti-union groups.

The problem is high turnover. Our employers are struggling to retain staff and fill open positions – it’s almost like they should pay us more, or something!

Current education employees, some of whom have been in this field for decades, are leaving their jobs with Oregon's schools and education programs. School staff are retiring, getting burnt out, or leaving for higher paying jobs that come with less stress.

This creates a constant churn of new employees, with fewer longtime members to welcome them.

I’m sure this isn’t news to anyone. It may be the one issue that is universal across our chapters. In a minute I will talk about the ways OSEA is working to reverse this trend. But for now, my point is that these issues didn’t go away this last year – in fact, there was an historic staffing crisis which only made chapter outreach harder. You might have expected to see the largest decline in membership yet, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, chapter leaders, organizers and activists dug deep into reserves of strength none of us knew we had.

In what I would say is the “greatest exhibition of guts and stamina” since Rocky hit theaters in 1976, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. In the last 12 months, OSEA chapters have held, collectively, 29 membership drives, 64 new employee orientations and dozens of chapter events.

Chapters sent mailers, hosted parties, painting events and bowling nights, held raffles and offered cool OSEA swag.

We did whatever it took to organize and engage our bargaining units. And our union is stronger today than it was one year ago BECAUSE OF YOU!

There is no way to show enough appreciation for all you have done, but every OSEA member – not to mention every worker, every school and every student – will benefit from your hard work and dedication. Thank you.

During Conference, we recognize the chapters who earned incentives through the Membership Incentive Program. These are chapters who have achieved and maintained membership levels above 70 percent, an impressive accomplishment.

I also want to recognize some OSEA underdogs who rose to the occasion this year. These chapters may not have achieved 70 percent membership – at least not yet. But they have taken a big step toward reaching the MIP in the future, thanks to absolutely amazing results from their outreach, engagement and organizing efforts.

Twenty-three OSEA chapters grew their membership by more than 20 percent this year. That is amazing! We will also celebrate these chapters later on, but I just have to give a shout out to a few superstars: North Powder Chapter 123 had 50 percent growth, Pendleton Chapter 115 had 56 percent growth, Oakridge Chapter 46 had 59 percent growth, Winston-Dillard Drivers Chapter 205 had 67 percent growth, and Culver Chapter 166, whose membership growth clocked in at a mind-blowing 240 percent!

I know that for all our chapters, growth and engagement doesn’t just happen. Like everything that really matters in life, we have to work for it. Hours, days, weeks of hard work go into planning membership drives and other engagement activities. But these chapters are proof that it pays off in the end.

Outreach and engagement impacts more than membership numbers. We also saw new and current members getting more active this last year. Chapters turned out crowds for rallies and events. Members showed up to support their bargaining teams. As more members step up, get involved and make a difference, we can see the impact at the bargaining table.

And our bargaining teams have been busy, with 53 chapters negotiating successor agreements this year, and another 30 having reopeners on compensation. And we have won some of the best contracts I’ve ever seen! Chapters won COLAs in the double digits, big step increases, better leave and insurance policies and so much more.

Contract wins like these are only possible when the chapter is strong.

Managers know that high membership rates mean the majority of employees are standing with the bargaining team.

Bargaining teams know they have support and solidarity from their colleagues, so they stand firm on what fellow members need from the new contract.

As we are seeing across the state, outreach and engagement have a direct impact on our members’ pocket books, working environments and quality of life.

And we don’t stop at the chapter level. With the Legislature in session, we took our fight to the State Capitol to make changes that will benefit workers across Oregon. This year we were able to add a staff position for a second government relations specialist (hi Sue!) to boost our legislative power. It has made a huge difference, as has OSEA members showing up and speaking up.

Legislative Education Day – LED – in March, was one of our biggest. The energy was incredible. Let me tell you, there is nothing like standing in the hallway of the Capitol and seeing OSEA members in every direction, proudly rocking our blue T-shirts. Members came from every zone to speak up for what education workers need, what our schools need, what our communities need.

You were excited. You were engaged. You leaned in and spoke truth to power, and you were heard.

We might feel like the underdog, but we pack a big punch. In meeting after meeting, OSEA members let lawmakers know what we are experiencing in our workplaces.

We let them know that short staffing and a lack of training means staff get serious injuries on the job and students aren’t set up for success. When school employees don’t have just cause protections or access to unemployment insurance when we are laid off, we can’t fill positions that pay less and have fewer protections than the fast-food restaurant down the street.

I could go on, but it would take me all weekend to tell every powerful story that was shared at LED this year.

But we kept that energy going all session. Members, including some in this very room, testified before legislative committees on bills that had the potential to change our lives. We submitted written testimony, called and emailed our representatives and spoke up about what we are experiencing on the front lines of education. And we made big wins in the Capitol, too.

Who here has ever been laid off from your school job, over summer break or any other time? I have GREAT news for you: beginning next January, you will have access to unemployment insurance benefits! This is an important financial safety net for workers.

Unemployment benefits are a cushion if we lose our jobs for reasons beyond our control. And for too long, way too long, classified have been barred from accessing benefits. It’s not fair. It creates real hardships for our members, when we already don’t get paid what we’re worth.

We have been fighting back against this unequal system for decades – talk about going the distance. 20 years ago, it seemed impossible. Five years ago, it looked unlikely. Over the last few years, we have been able to chip away at it, winning unemployment access for one classification over here, then another over there.

Finally, we WON. Thanks to Senate Bill 489, and really, thanks to the many OSEA members who have fought for this over the years, this is the last summer that K-12 classified will have to clear some arbitrary hurdle that applies to no other class of worker. And that is going to be literally life-changing for many of our members.

What about our special education staff – who here works with a student with an IEP or 504 plan? Great news for you: beginning next school year, districts will be required to give you access to those plans. They will be required to include you in meetings that make changes to those plans. They will be required to give you the training you need to safely and effectively support students with special needs.

This is common sense stuff, right? The staff members who spend the most time with a student should know what that student needs. They should be able to offer input on plans. They definitely should have training to do their jobs well, especially for high-need student populations. Sadly, we know that in most districts, this hasn’t been the case. Until now!

Senate Bill 756 is good for everyone. I cried when I heard it passed. As the proud parent of a student with an IEP who just finished high school, I know it would have made such a difference for my daughter if all the staff she worked with knew of her disabilities and needs throughout her education. And I am overjoyed that students like her will have that support from now on.

We will be able to support our students better and help them learn more effectively. And we will get training in how to do that well, while keeping everyone safe.

Ok, last one. I was going to ask “who here doesn’t get the recognition you deserve?” but I know that’s all of us.

That’s why it matters to win legal recognition of Classified School Employees Week – the first week of March, now and forever.

Classified school employees are overworked, under-appreciated and under-acknowledged. The statewide celebration of Classified School Employees Week celebrates all we do for our schools. And it helps educate our communities about classified – who we are, what we do, and why it is essential.

All that we accomplished this last year is thanks to our active and engaged membership. And we would not have that membership without our chapter leaders, worksite organizers, stewards and other activists. YOU are the ones in the ring, defending members every day. From bargaining to representation to organizing, YOU are doing the heavy lifting.

If members are OSEA’s heart and soul, then leaders and activists are our backbone – you hold us up, support us all and keep our union strong. Can all our chapter leaders, worksite organizers, stewards and activists stand and be recognized?

Thank you. I know the last few years have been HARD. We’re tired. The burnout is real.

But I want you to know that, even on the days when you feel like you have to carry your entire chapter on your shoulders, you don’t have to do it alone.

Our fourth annual Leadership Summit in January focused on supporting leaders, growing union skills and holding each other up. Leaders shared what has been successful in their chapters, and what is still a challenge.

It was so cool to watch you talk to one another, to share advice, to ask questions and empower one another. Regardless of how long you have been with OSEA, we are all growing and learning every day. I look forward to having more of these conversations in the future.

Most of all, I want you to know that you have a whole network of members, fellow leaders, staff and allies who support you. We want you to succeed and that means we want you to have what you need. Just ask, and if you don’t know what to ask for, just tell us what is hard. We are here – the State Association, the Board of Directors and OSEA staff – and we have your back.

I wish I could say that we are through the hard times and it is smooth sailing ahead. The truth is, we will face many more challenges. But we will keep standing, shoulder to shoulder, to fight for what is right, because that is what we do.

There are reasons to be optimistic. The COVID-19 emergency is finally over. And while we are hearing threats of budget cuts and staff reductions from some of our employers, our chapters are strong. Together, we have fought for the most funding our schools have ever had.

Turnover is still high, and I know that puts pressure on our members and chapters. But the tide is finally starting to turn. Increased advocacy over the last year is bringing attention to the value of classified employees. Our strong contracts and legislative wins are literally changing members’ lives – which is great for us and it also means that jobs like ours will be more desirable. In the long term, this will help ease the staffing crisis and limit turnover. And that helps our members, too.

This is exactly why we organize in our chapters. When we talk about membership and how much it matters, it’s not because we’re greedy for more dues dollars. It’s not because we resent colleagues who aren’t members of our clubs.

Membership matters because our members matter. Solidarity matters. Care and compassion among our peers matter. No one will look out for us if we don’t look out for ourselves. Organizing in our union boosts our worker power.

Our strength is in our numbers: we can do more, go further and win bigger when we do it together!

We have just been through an incredible year, when OSEA members worked together to beat the odds. Let’s take a look back at the last year, and all we have done together. I will pause here to share a short video of our year in review.

Watch the 2022-23 Year in Review video

Once again, thank you to all of you, and OSEA members everywhere, for the contributions you made to our union in the last year.

We have the momentum, we have proven what we can do. And I cannot wait to see what we will do together in the years to come!