[ Fighting for you ]

Horseheads school professionals voiceless no more


rganizing isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. A group of nearly 40 school social workers, social work assistants, occupational therapists and physical therapists in the Horseheads School District learned that in August when NYSUT helped them unionize after a nearly year-long struggle.

For decades, the members were part of the Horseheads Support Staff Association, a catchall group of 10-, 11- and 12-month employees. The group encompassed 21 different job titles and negotiated contracts but wasn’t a real union. It didn’t hold officer elections or union meetings. The school superintendent appointed its president. And the HSSA didn’t represent employees in discipline cases or charge members union dues. Trapped under the thumb of school administrators, the employees felt their concerns weren’t being addressed.

“We were frustrated with the contract in 2022,” said physical therapist Alisha Tenbus, who spearheaded the organizing effort. She noted that the flat dollar amount raises approved across the board were minimal for those making close to six figures and since “the contract was voted on and approved by all the 12-month employees before we even saw it” it left the 10- and 11-month employees voiceless.

After unanimously signing cards to affiliate with NYSUT, the group sought voluntary recognition but soon hit a roadblock. The district claimed they were ineligible to join NYSUT because they were already represented by a union — the HSSA.

“That’s when we decided to organize the entire [HSSA] unit,” said Tenbus. To highlight the benefits of unionizing, NYSUT organizer Liz Smith-Rossiter and Southern Tier regional staff director Tim O’Brien hosted a March informational meeting for all HSSA unit members and worked with Tenbus to conduct one-on-one conversations with members. At a June 14 meeting, members voted to affiliate with NYSUT as the Horseheads Association of Professional Support Staff and elected Tenbus interim president. Days later the ousted HSSA president reached agreement with the district to splinter the 12-month employees away from the NYSUT-represented group.

On Aug. 17, the school board voted unanimously to recognize HAPSS as the district’s newest bargaining unit. Contract negotiations began in September.

“Despite the pressure and illegal actions of the employer, the HAPSS members rallied at the Horseheads School Board meeting to demand recognition for their union,” said Mike Deely, NYSUT director of membership growth and organizing. “This case proves once again that when you organize you win.”

Tenbus thanked Horseheads TA president Bill Finnerty, HTA members Dora Leland and Jason Neubauer, Horseheads School Services Association President Jessica Benkelmann and NYSUT representatives for their support and advice.

“This has taught me that if you feel strongly about something, you should keep working toward your goal,” said Tenbus. “I am an advocate above all else.”

Do you know someone who’s interested in forming a union? Visit nysut.cc/Organize for information.