March 2011
February 18, 2011

The makings of union leadership

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT's Kathleen Donahue describes the skills participants in the Leadership Institute will learn during the intensive weeklong training last summer. Photo by Betsy Sandberg

A part from weekends off, extra pay for extra work, occupational health and safety, health insurance, retirement and a voice on the job, what has labor done for you lately?

"People ask questions," said Martin Messner, a health teacher in the rural Schoharie schools. "But it can be hard to recall past successes when public service and unions are under attack."

Thanks to NYSUT's leadership development efforts, Messner and hundreds of other NYSUT activists not only have answers to questions about the union's relevance and value, they are the newest generation of union leaders who spur their members across the state to fight against these attacks.

Messner recently convinced 95 percent of his members in the Schoharie Teachers Association to attend a meeting with a local lawmaker about how proposed cuts will jeopardize education for kids.

That kind of action is duplicated 345 miles to the west in Brocton. There, local president Deb Lloyd-Priest convinced members of the Brocton TA to send a letter to a local lawmaker, and she received promises that members will fill out "Don't Erase Our Progress" postcards.

And 162 miles to the south, members like Ualin Smith of the United Federation of Teachers are behind an effort to get a fair, living-wage bill enacted in New York City.

All of these efforts, and more, can be traced back to programs provided by your statewide union. 

"Through the support from NYSUT, I've got lots of answers for when people ask me what the union is doing for them," Messner said. "Then I ask them to do something for themselves — and even better, I ask them to do something for other workers in other unions."

This fall, a group of Schoharie teachers marched with nurses in Schenectady trying to get a fair contract and are now working on efforts to help plumbers in New York City ensure that plumbing in schools is done by certified workers. 

The most visible of NYSUT's efforts is its Leadership Institute, a national model in preparing for a new generation of union leaders. NYSUT held its first Leadership Institute in the summer of 1997.

Since then, more than 600 women and men have undergone the intensive week of summer training and midwinter follow-up. Hundreds of these graduates have been elected to higher offices in their local unions, in labor councils and other union endeavors.

Almost 200 graduates have become delegates to NYSUT's Representative Assembly, the union's policy-making body. At the statewide level, graduates serve on the NYSUT Board of Directors, the NYSUT policy councils and on statewide committees such as VOTE-COPE, the School-Related Professionals Advisory Committee and the BOCES Statewide Committee.

Some moved into management positions. Some have retired. Three serve as vice presidents for the American Federation of Teachers, one of NYSUT's national affiliates. Two graduates, Lee Cutler and Andy Pallotta, now serve as statewide officers — Cutler as secretary-treasurer since 2008 and Pallotta as executive vice president since 2010.

The Leadership Institute is just one of the ways members develop their own advocacy skills, said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, whose office oversees the union's numerous conferences, training programs and specialized local trainings. "The training needs of our members often trace directly back to the needs of a community," Donahue said. 

That's what Lloyd-Priest, who teaches social studies and psychology in Brocton schools, has found. After a weekend of training in the requirements of a new teacher evaluation model and the impact of proposed budget cuts, she returned to western New York prepared to get her membership to work. 

"Our state is in a fiscal crisis that took us years to get into, but the solutions we are hearing are to cut programs for our kids and schools to the bone so that in six months they can say 'less taxes,'" Lloyd-Priest said. "That's not right, and every single member of my union is committed to fighting that."

Members who help their locals in areas ranging from public relations and finance to negotiations and data processing can take advantage of workshops and material NYSUT provides on each of those topics.

NYSUT also sponsors statewide conferences for members of its constituent groups, including community colleges, SRPs, BOCES and retirees. The sessions, developed by your union's Program Services department, focus on issues and concerns unique to each group.

On-the-job safety and health concerns such as indoor air pollution, asbestos hazards, toxic chemicals, and the importance of local safety and health committees are addressed in NYSUT workshops and literature. The union also brings together teams from a selected group of locals for a week in July as part of an intensive Local Action Project. The teams commit to three years and learn to develop strategies to improve communications, member involvement, political action and community coalition-building.

Donahue noted that the continuous, relevant and ongoing nature of the union's membership and leadership development programs are strengthened through the connections locals from across the state make with each other.

"Participants report their successes and challenges with each other often, and we all learn from each other," she said. "Activists network through e-mails, phone calls and other media, and the best practices are shared through the Leader Access section of NYSUT's website."