NYSUT officers, dignitaries and honorees addressed delegates at the 40th Representative Assembly April 26-28 in Buffalo. For full coverage, videos and officer reports, visit www.nysut.org/RA.
Iannuzzi: Values shape union strategy
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi emphasized that principle and reason must guide the union's strategy during challenging times.
From the struggle to reach agreement on a fair teacher evaluation system to the ongoing battle over privacy, Iannuzzi acknowledged that the past year has been difficult, requiring the union to set a course that is more deliberate and purposeful.
"Leadership demands a consistency in decision-making and in strategy based on principles," he said. "The strategy you choose has to be about values and fairness. It can't be about bravado or keeping peace. It has to be about what you believe in."
But "let's be clear as we can. We will not rest until legislation is passed that prevents the disgraceful behavior of publicly shaming teachers and we will hold every elected official accountable, whether from the Assembly or the Senate, whether Democrat or Republican, whether mayor or governor," said Iannuzzi.
Education, he said, isn't a hobby for NYSUT members, the way it is for hedge-fund billionaires or the anti-union group Democrats for Education Reform. And while there is a place for measurement, there is an even greater place for what he called "The Art of Teaching."
"Just because you think you can measure it, doesn't make it the be-all and end-all, doesn't make it the only lens, (and) doesn't make it right," he said.
Pallotta: We'll keep fighting for you
Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta vowed to stay relevant, resilient and relentless steering the union's political action agenda.
He said those qualities are desperately needed after lawmakers have cut funds for schools from pre-K to post-grad; imposed an anti-public education tax cap; and cut back on pensions for future public employees.
Almost no local is left unscathed, Pallotta said. Most are "sacrificing, bargaining and compromising to keep as many programs and services for those we serve."
The tax cap is also an assault on democracy, as a 60-percent supermajority is now required to exceed the cap. The new pension tier is an assault on future generations that undermines their retirement security.
Pallotta said union advocacy successfully convinced lawmakers to:
drop a 401(k)-style contribution system from the newest pension tier for all but high-earning managers;
provide modest restorations to higher ed and some funding for teacher centers, and increase state aid to schools by $805 million this year; and
revise the income tax code to provide a higher tax bracket for those with the most income.
In upcoming elections, Pallotta pledged the union would only back lawmakers bold enough to build up professionals; close corporate loopholes; restore funding for schools and health care; fully fund public higher education; and stand up for working families.
"We will never stop fighting … never quit fighting for those we serve or for each other," Pallotta said.
Neira: We won't stand down
Evoking the scene from the movie "Network," when people yelled from their windows in frustration, NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira urged delegates to try.
"We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore!" Neira shouted out.
The crowd roared back not once, but twice — as State Education Commissioner John King listened.
"That felt good, very good. It definitely got my energy up," Neira said. "Brothers and sisters, let's put our anger to use. Let's channel our energy for the year ahead."
"SED must be responsible for their decisions. We will hold them to the same rigor they require of us," Neira said. She pledged to shift the public's focus back to teaching students — not just test prep and raising test scores — and giving educators a chance to focus on real learning opportunities.
"And we will constantly remind SED that we the practitioners speak from experience," Neira said. "Our students must not pay the price for bad planning, bad policy and bad questions about talking pineapples!"
Neira pledged that NYSUT will not allow SED to continue its fixation with high-stakes one-size-fits-all assessments — especially for English language learners and students with disabilities.
"The (testing) system in New York state is broken. It is harmful to our students and must be fixed! As we move forward, as our anger energizes us ... collective bargaining channels our strength to meet the challenges ahead," Neira said. "We stand up for what's right. And we won't stand down!"
Donahue: Keep our union moving forward
NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue urged delegates to "keep the clock," by standing strong and united in the face of ongoing attacks.
"We must not let short-sighted politicians keep us from moving this great union forward," said Donahue, citing the attacks on pensions, health insurance, Social Security and Medicare. "We must work cooperatively, strategically and intelligently to continue to build this great union and move our agenda forward."
"The time has come where bus drivers, nurses, teaching assistants, aides, custodians, therapists, counselors and school secretaries can no longer just quietly go about their work," she said. "Our professions are under attack. We must let the parents of the students we so proudly serve know that these attacks are now personal.
"I am calling on each and every one of you and your members to adopt and embrace a culture of unity," she continued. "A culture in which … we are branded as members of our local, our ED, our state and national unions and the labor movement."
Donahue called for harnessing the force of the union's strength to reclaim the American Dream of fair wages for workers, the promise of a dignified retirement and affordable health care for all.
"These are the components of the Dream that are under attack — and together we must use our solidarity and strength to defend them for us and for future generations," she said.
Cutler: Union tightens belt, maintains services
NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler explained what steps NYSUT has taken to cut costs, and why the union asked its members to support a dues increase. (See related story.)
"We have removed costs at every opportunity," Cutler said. "We have taken millions of dollars out of our operating cost structure, about $3 million just in the last year, while also seeking to enlarge our non-dues revenues."
Cutler said 90 percent of NYSUT's revenue comes from dues, but the union has lost dues-paying members in each of the last three years, and that trend is expected to continue for another year.
"As ‘downsizing' continues in your local districts and in higher education, you know all too well the situation," Cutler said. "Our loss of members through the next fiscal year will result in a loss of annual dues revenues exceeding $10 million.
"In this time of challenge for many of our laid-off members, the Board of Directors has elected to offer access to any of our programs and services for a seven-year period to ease their minds in a stressful time in their lives."
More than 160 NYSUT members affected by last summer's severe flooding received $500 checks from the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund, he said. Members' generosity allowed the union to send a second check to each of the original applicants for flood relief.
"This is what NYSUT is about, and as we close the book on this special relief fund, we can take pride in the generosity and caring of NYSUT members," Cutler said.
RA 2012 – guest speakers
Van Roekel: Kick butt, take names
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel urged delegates to spend the next months working on behalf of President Obama.
"We can't stay home and we can't be low-key," he said. "We have to stop beating up on our friends ... Our enemies and frenemies will spend hundreds of millions to attack our friends. We don't need to help them."
He urged delegates to look no further than all the negative political changes that have swept the country since the 2010 elections. Since then, 18 states have eliminated or seriously revised collective bargaining rights; and five states have eliminated the right to payroll deduction, with some zeroing in specifically on educators.
"It's a crazy world," Van Roekel said, noting much of the blame game is targeting educators. He urged activists to do more than play defense. "When you stop bad ideas, you stay where you are. We've got to step up our offense ... kick butt and take names."
Weingarten: Find strength in unity
The labor movement is finding new strength through community engagement. This outreach will help unionists develop strong alliances with parents and other partners, said AFT President Randi Weingarten.
"Community engagement is not an add-on, my friends — it is essential," she said.
"The labor movement is the only vehicle that can rebuild the middle class, because of our unique role at the bargaining table and the ballot box. That is the new fight-back strategy — a strategy where community is the new unity."
Educators have the gratitude of the AFT for being on the front line, facing devastating budget cuts and standing firmly against an onslaught of verbal attacks against public employees, she said.
"I've seen this year how we won and how we convert fighting tough to fighting smart," she said. "Anger doesn't always produce results. A seat at the table produces results. Don't let anyone say we are not in favor of education reform; we want it done with us, not to us," she said.
Gillibrand: Educators deserve respect
Acknowledging the challenges facing educators, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand saluted their dedication. "That's why I'm working hard to try to fix Washington," she said, citing her support for innovative strategies to attract and retain qualified teachers, including providing tax breaks to help cover tuition costs.
"America relies on our ability to out-educate the competition," she said. Equally important is providing all students with opportunities once they leave the classroom, she said.
"When they take that next step, we must make sure there are open doors for them to walk through," she said, noting her support for affordable low-interest loans and access to community and technical colleges.
She also advocated for passage of the DREAM Act. "Today millions are denied affordable access to college because they were brought to the U.S. by their parents," said Gillibrand. "They deserve a chance at legal status."
DiNapoli: Education is best investment
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli thanked NYSUT members for "telling the truth about so-called pension reform" and urged them to continue advocating for public education.
"We need more good men and women like you to choose education as a calling and as a career," he said. "Education is still the best investment we can make for the best return for our nation and our state."
Through signs and posters, delegates shared their support for DiNapoli's defense of defined benefit plans.
DiNapoli, the sole trustee of the state's Employees Retirement System, spoke out against a 401(k)-style option, saying it would undermine retirement security for all.
"A 401(k) was never meant to take the place of a pension," DiNapoli said. "You should have a sense of satisfaction that 99 percent of that 401(k) proposal was knocked out." He called upon NYSUT to continue to show solidarity with public employees in other states who face similar criticism and cutbacks.
RA 2012 – Award winners
Teacher of the Year: Be the spark
"Belief is powerful and can change lives," New York's Teacher of the Year Katie Ferguson said. "Believe we can make a difference."
She urged educators to believe their most disadvantaged students can exceed expectations, and their brightest students can reach even higher.
"Believe for them even if they don't believe in themselves," she said. "From your belief, theirs will blossom."
Most importantly, the second-grade Schenectady teacher urged educators to believe in themselves. She noted her degree hangs on a wall in her classroom, right behind her reading table, as a symbol of her professionalism. The idea came to her in her doctor's office.
"It occurred to me that I look at her degree every time I'm there. Doctors have an implicit trust from their patients, which we teachers deserve as well. We, too, are highly educated, professionally trained individuals," she said. "So I say, decree your degree. Hang it for your students, your parents and your administrators to see."
Ferguson, a member of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, paid special tribute to all the School-Related Professionals who make schools complete — secretaries, nurses, paraprofessionals, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and everyone who belongs to the school community.
"Let us continue to teach, to inspire, and to celebrate each other," she said. "Belief is the spark that ignites accomplishment. Teachers are that spark!"
Shanker, Rudman earn Sandy Feldman leadership awards
"Not For Ourselves Alone:" The Sandy Feldman Outstanding Leadership honor this year was awarded to Eadie Shanker and Judith Rudman.
Shanker, a former Queens teacher, worked with her late husband, Al Shanker, Abe Levine, George Altomare and a host of other early activists to build membership in the New York City Teachers Guild, a precursor to the UFT.
"Organizing was primitive by today's standards … but we did what worked, person by person, school by school," said Shanker.
Outreach included activities like bridge games, square dances and weekend theater parties, she said. Organizing was challenging since most educators initially were afraid to speak out, afraid to join the union and afraid to lead, she added.
Describing her mother as a "woman of many talents," Margery Greene, daughter of honoree Judith Rudman, who died recently, said her mother was a committed unionist who worked tirelessly to keep the professionalism of teachers at the forefront.
"She had a button that said, ‘Those who can, teach. Those who can't, pass laws about teaching,'" said Greene. "That was one of the foundations of her union activism — let the talented teachers teach, reward them fairly for it and get out of their way."