September 2011
August 30, 2011

NYSUT's LAP program: Building a better tomorrow

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue addresses members of the first-, second- and third-year locals involved in the union's Local Action Project. Since LAP begin in 1997, more than 90 locals have completed the program. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

When the Local Action Project started in 1997, it was to help local unions develop strategies against TAXPAC groups that want to de-fund public education. Every summer since, LAP locals that make the three-year commitment to the program gather to learn proven strategies to: increase member participation, build community support, close the achievement gap and achieve results in contracts, budget votes and other homegrown issues.

Here are some of the strategies and initiatives the graduating LAP locals put into action:

The Rochester Teachers Association faced a district leader intent on battling teachers, parents and groups of community members who wanted to keep public schools public. Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard's commitment to privatization, market dynamics, high stakes testing and a top-down management style wreaked havoc on the system but created stronger coalitions between the union and the community.

After Brizard left in April, the Rochester TA, led by Adam Urbanski, and the school community strengthened the ties they developed through social networking and meetings. RTA's LAP team is a strong vehicle for improved community relations.

"There is a strong sense of collaboration between the union and parent groups to improve the schools in Rochester. This improved relationship will benefit the most important community group of them all, students," said Aimee Rinere, who coordinates the local union's LAP efforts.

Among the many lessons the Pine Bush TA learned through LAP is to design a logo and motto as soon as possible, and then put that logo on everything that's developed. As members identified with the logo — "Teaching Today for a Better Tomorrow" — participation also increased.

Websites and the array of social network offerings can be effective ways to communicate with members, though personal contact is the best way to increase member involvement, noted Carla McLaud, president of the mid-Hudson area local.

When the Schoharie TA wanted to up the ante on member mobilization, local president Martin Messner issued a challenge. If local members tripled their voluntary contributions to NYSUT's political action fund, he would be tattooed with a union logo.

The members came through, quadrupling their donations and Messner now sports a tattoo on his left shoulder.

Other activities are more visible. Members volunteer at the regional food bank, the Halloween parade, and the chicken barbecue that raises money for scholarships. Members also provide tickets for senior citizens to attend the school play.

"Our members participate in more than 40 events that benefit the community," Messner said. The Schoharie TA put skills honed at LAP to broader use when the local founded the Foothills Area Council of Teachers. The council, comprised of nine rural locals, brainstorms strategies on common issues on contract results and electing school board members.

For the smallest of NYSUT locals, the union's Local Action Project makes a big difference.

St. Johnsville TA President Phoebe Sitterly said the Utica-area local increased its activism through a variety of programs, such as union-sponsored student recognition, professional development and giveaways at school open houses and Memorial Day events. Members became more politically active at a number of events and rallies, bringing signs such as "Stop Repeat Offenders: Don't re-elect them."

Alexandria Central FA members credit LAP with moving the union from just a collective bargaining unit to an organization that works for all in the community, including stu dents and parents.

"LAP helped our members see the bigger picture of public education and the need for political action," said Michael Montigelli, president of the North Country local. In two years, the local developed 40 community projects, including a back-to-school barbecue, volleyball social, surfing for seniors and putting the union logo on clothing and items to get their name out.

"We also learned how to collectively take credit for all the things we do to benefit our school community," Montigelli said.

For one local, the best is yet to come. The Buffalo Educational Support Team faced numerous challenges and attacks on the bargaining unit, as well as a change in leadership.

They quickly learned they needed to keep supporting and celebrating their base membership.

"We are taking back with us so many great ideas from all of our LAP locals," said JoAnn Sweat, president of the 900-member local of classroom and health care aides and teaching assistants. "We learned so much from everyone else."

For the Jamestown TA, becoming active is winning the battle: specifically the Battle of the Businesses. The week-long series of contests raises awareness and funds for the Greater Jamestown YMCA.

"The events also raise awareness for each of the participating groups as the community turns out to watch many of the events," said Chris Reilly, Jamestown TA president. Almost 2,000 participants from different businesses compete in the wide-ranging contests, from archery and golf to softball and Scrabble during a week in September.

"It's a great opportunity to give back to the community as well as a convenient way to get members involved because there's such a wide range of events," Reilly said. One event is a walk at Chautauqua Lake. "It really makes a statement in the community to have hundreds of teachers participating." The local also increased participation in political action, voluntary VOTE-COPE contributions and fund-raisers to fight cancer.

"These LAP locals really put into practice the true spirit of unionism — that all of us benefit, now and in the future," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue.