Summer 2011
June 29, 2011

Unionists striking back

Author: NYSUT United Staff
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Unionists in North Rockland are turning out in droves to rally in support of public education and to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share. Photo by Studio Eleven Productions.

For lawmakers and policymakers who choose to support the wealthy over the working class, energized educators say: Get ready for a long, hot summer. "We are so angry at what is happening to our students and our schools," said Bert Weber, president of the Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Employees Association.

His anger is shared by NYSUT members and leaders across the state as NYSUT turns up the heat throughout the summer and beyond. "We are holding politicians and policymakers accountable for their actions that undermine the public good," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.

On Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, anger spurred hundreds to picket lawmakers who support a tax cap that will devastate public education and widen the achievement gap.

"So many people wanted to get out our message that this tax cap hurts our state," said Donna Ramundo, who leads the Nyack TA. NYSUT's $1.3 million television ad campaign cited some of the substantive reasons why The New York Times, League of Women Voters and the state PTA view the cap as antidemocratic and detrimental to the state's growth.

In just the last week of the legislative session, NYSUT members flooded legislators with phone calls, faxes and emails that NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta estimated to total "well north of 41,000 contacts."

"Middle class America is under attack and we are fighting back," Ramundo said. "Even though we are often out-funded, we are not outnumbered. Look at what happened in western New York."

A major-league assist from NYSUT members and retirees in western New York helped Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, prove the pundits wrong and win election to the U.S. Congress over multi-millionaire Jane Corwin, the GOP candidate and critic of Medicare.

At the state level, NYSUT is using media, the courts and collective bargaining to stand up for best practices in education.

From urban to rural New York state and communities in between, union activism is at the highest level seen in years, a reaction to the proposed tax cap and to $1.3 billion in cuts that will cost more than 16,000 education jobs. In one heart-wrenching reminder of budget pain, every seat in a Bethlehem school auditorium was left empty during a press event, signifying the loss of more than 700 education jobs in the Capital District.

In Otsego County, more than 300 people turned up the heat at a rally sponsored jointly by the Oneonta TA and the United University Professions chapter at Oneonta to decry a $2 million hit in this year's school budget and more than $4 million in cuts to SUNY Oneonta.

"It doesn't take a lot of time to make ourselves more visible, just some good planning and creative ideas," said Kevin Clark, president of the 126-member Unatego TA, who brought 70 people to the rally.

At SUNY Oneonta, UUP members are lobbying local lawmakers, and through events like the rally are reaching out to their K-12 counterparts in local school districts to lay the groundwork for ongoing advocacy, said Oneonta Chapter President Bill Simons.

UUP and its chapters across the state are pressing the fight for funding. Ziya Arnavut, chapter president at SUNY Fredonia, is energizing her base. "If unions want to survive, we have to reach out to our own members first and then we can reach out to the public," Arnavut said. At Erie Community College, where "unity lunches" highlight solidarity activities and community projects, members are working with other progressive organizations in western New York on upcoming races for county executive and county legislators.

"We want to get people elected who are going to be responsive to educational issues," said Andy Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College.

At the City University of New York, the campaign to restore city funding for CUNY continues full force. Officers and members of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents more than 20,000 faculty and staff at CUNY, are holding news conferences and rallies; testifying before New York City Council budget hearings and conducting letter campaigns to press for the restoration of CUNY funds.

Iannuzzi said strong grassroots advocacy makes it loud and clear to lawmakers that their actions go against the public good. He urged them to listen.

"In poll after poll, New Yorkers strongly oppose cuts to their public schools and colleges," he said.

Jason Glashauser, a member of the Baldwsinville TA, is emblematic of energized unionists statewide.

"I've gone from just attending meetings five years ago to becoming a building rep, to going to NYSUT's Representative Assembly last year and now, not just going to rallies, but making sure I can get as many people as possible to rallies," said Glashauser, who has taught social studies for 10 years in Baldwinsville, Onondaga County.

Baldwinsville TA members were among hundreds at a rally in Syracuse. "I see attacks on the public sector like I've never seen before, and I know that if we want to be heard, we can't keep looking to others to speak for us," Glashauser said.

Wappingers Congress of Teachers President Pasquale Delli Carpini agrees. "Our rights are under attack and now is the time for action and for strength in solidarity," he said.

Solidarity among the WCT, the Wappingers Federation of Workers, the Wappingers Congress of Re-tired Teachers and the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation ignited a large outpouring of support for proeducation school board candidates and a strong budget. The union used newspaper ads, phone banks, post cards and stickers for students that said, "I'm the Reason to Vote Yes for the Budget."

"But we can never rest. We have to keep educating people about what's at stake in our schools," Delli Carpini said. For public officials, that means school is not out for summer. "We will be relentless in advocating for restorations to programs," said Pallotta. "We are documenting the pain and sacrifices that students and educators are making, and we will take every opportunity to remind the public of what happened this year."

To that end, every member and every supporter you can muster can help make this a long, hot summer for the politicians and policymakers who need to get the message!

Story by Betsy Sandberg, Bernie Mulligan and Darryl McGrath.