Becky Lesh, a Waterford bus driver who serves as president of her MEA education support professional (ESP) local and vice-chair of the 7E Coordinating Council, has been named the 2021 Leon A. Brunner Award winner for her tireless work fighting privatization efforts and reversing cuts to positions and pay.
In her five years as local president, Lesh successfully beat back a district effort to privatize the custodial department, and she won back some of the 16% wage cut and four holidays that were taken away to discourage those employees from staying.
The Brunner Award recognizes support staff who have exhibited a high degree of commitment and dedication to their union while advocating for ESP member issues.
Lesh has had at least 15 positions returned to the unit in various job classifications, according to nominators Heather Madigan, the union’s custodial maintenance rep; and Toni Weddle, the food service rep and local treasurer.
“She is fighting every day to make this unit stronger by retaining good membership,” the nominating letter said.
Lesh was awarded the honor at last Thursday’s opening session of the ESP Statewide Conference, which was held virtually this year over two nights and a Saturday. Lesh was on hand to accept the award with a long list of acknowledgements to leaders and colleagues who’ve mentored and supported her union work.
Before naming names, she tearfully admitted, “I am the last person that likes to toot my own horn or even talk about what I do. There are so many people that have helped me do the things I’ve done.”
In the 2015-16 school year, the district moved to privatize transportation, but Lesh organized the community and the membership to pull out a win for the unit. She has since won an increase in transportation wages and paid holidays.
“Becky is continually there for her members and is always willing to fight for the betterment of our members,” the nominators said. “If she feels anyone has been treated wrongly by the District, she is willing and ready to go the extra mile to make it right.”
MEA UniServ Director Troy Beasley worked with Lesh when he was president of the education association in Waterford. She was instrumental in developing the collaborative relationship that exists between the teachers and support staff unions, he said.
“She believes in unions, solidarity, and speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” Beasley said. “She is not afraid to speak her mind and is the first person to volunteer to help others when they are in crisis.”
Lesh leads her local union in various community service opportunities, from holiday donations to raffle fundraisers, and she is a patient leader always willing to teach and share information with members and the community, Madigan and Weddle said.
“She is great at making the right decisions for the membership and seems to do it effortlessly,” they concluded.
Following the award for Lesh, a surprise announcement was made naming longtime leader Jim Sparapani to MEA’s ESP Hall of Fame. A 37-year-veteran custodian and bus driver from the U.P.’s Breitung Township, Sparapani has held numerous union roles at the local, regional, state and national levels, both before and after his retirement in 2010.
His friend and fellow ESP Caucus Board member, Percy Brown, said Sparapani was at the forefront years ago of talking about subjects that are now part of a national conversation around white fragility and inclusion – presenting to ESP members across the country.
“He was one of the lead facilitators and presenters for the NEA for years, going across the country talking about diversity,” Brown said.
Sparapani’s gentle, good-natured demeanor draws people in and puts them at ease, Brown added:
“He not only works for people because he has to, but he also has what I call the calming effect when he’s representing individuals.”
Showing genuinely surprise at the honor, Sparapani said he was humbled to join some good friends and mentors in the Hall of Fame.
“I never got involved to get rewards,” he said. “I got involved for the membership to be rewarded, to be protected. I was asked once, ‘Why do you do this?’ I said, ‘So the ones who will not speak up, I can speak up for them.’ And I hopefully have done that.
“This is probably one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, other than being blessed by God, so thank you.”