September 2012
September 05, 2012

When locals engage,communities gain

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, left, with Liz Brown, a member of the Penfield Education Association, a first-year LAP local.

Chances are you won't find substantive media coverage of the myriad ways unions contribute to and improve their communities.

"But it is easy to find misleading articles or hear political ads that blame public employees and their unions for every evil," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.

To combat the distortions and misconceptions, a growing corps of NYSUT locals are setting the record straight.

Graduates of the union's LAP program — most notably the plans and strategies they complete — are a prime example.

"LAP is where NYSUT helps us to understand about partnering more effectively with other unions and with other organizations in our community," said Stu Napear, president of the Freeport Teachers Association."Locals need to take that extra step to communicate what we do. Many of us do good work in our schools and in our communities but we don't talk about it, or take credit for it, because it's just not our nature."

Creating partnerships

Since the Local Action Project began in 1994, 115 locals have made the three-year commitment to identify local issues and practice solution-driven unionism to:

  • increase member participation,
  • strengthen political action,
  • expand community outreach,
  • build coalitions, and
  • improve communications.

"The solutions are so often amongst the leaders and members of NYSUT locals," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue. "After years of overseeing this program, I know each summer I will be inspired by the commitment and dedication of our locals."

Many locals initiate community outreach through social justice projects and charitable efforts, but the Freeport TA also succeeded in building a political action team to mobilize members around key issues, such as school funding, and build a coalition with parents.

"In addition to lobbying through NYSUT, we also lobbied with our parents. We had the same message on how to attack our budget problems," Napear said.

Finding solutions

Locals continue LAP strategies after they finish the formal training, including a quartet of southwestern New York unions. The Dunkirk, West Valley, Jamestown and Cassadaga Valley unions meet for two days each August.

"This planning time really lights the fuse for us for the rest of the year," said Steve Helwig, president of the Cassadaga Valley Faculty Association, a 2005 LAP graduate local. "First, bouncing ideas off each other and other locals makes our action plans better. Second, making the time for us all to get together and brainstorm means we start the school year ahead of the game."

One topic at this year's brainstorming was how to best implement the provisions of the state's Dignity for All Students Act that took effect July 1. The law requires schools to adopt anti-bullying conduct codes and to make the school environment safe. Unfortunately, the state provided no funds for training or means to incorporate the program into the curriculum.

The CVFA is working with thedistrict on anti-bullying programs and, with NYSUT's help, arranging a screening of the movie "Bully" in the western New York area in October.

Build something together

The Faculty Federation of Erie Community College, a 2012 LAP graduate local, sought to build community bridges when members helped restore the historic Buffum House in South Buffalo. Led by Andy Sako, local unionists worked with students from the college building trades courses to weatherize the building and repair porches.

"Whether it's fixing up a home or negotiating a new agreement, the best way to build unity is to build something together," Sako said.

Serving our seniors

The Faculty Association of Suffolk County Community College, a 2006 LAP graduate local, leads a program called Professors on Wheels.

Faculty volunteers visit assisted living centers and nursing homes and give talks on various topics.

"Currently, Professors on Wheels serves three senior facilities and we're hoping to expand to others soon. It's a great, low impact way to serve a much deserving and sometimes neglected part of our larger community," said Dan Linker, who coordinates the program.

Many of the first graduates of the pilot program had long given up the notion of attending college, he said, and the program fulfilled that dream.

Buy-in for union issues

Building coalitions such as the recently formed Educate NY Now! helps improve community understanding of union issues.

"This group of parents, administrators, school board members, county lawmakers, as well as anyone who works with students, sees a problem when corporations in our state have huge profits and pay out large bonuses while communities must close schools and cut programs," said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT executive vice president.

The group is seeking a better approach to school financing that does not overburden local property taxpayers, is fair and equitable, and provides the opportunity for all students to receive a quality education.

Public service campaign

The New York State Lifeguard Corps, a UUP chapter, is active in a public service campaign to prevent drowning deaths.

Bruce Meirowitz, president of the lifeguards chapter, and Cary Epstein, the chapter's second vice president, are representatives on the Long Island Drowning Prevention Task Force.

The task force is a coalition of water-safety and public-health experts that includes members of the American Red Cross and doctors from several pediatric hospitals in the New York metropolitan region.

The lifeguards' representatives have worked with the task force to expand the scope of water-safety information in the task force's brochure beyond beaches and pools. Lakes, rivers and quarries also pose potential hazards, and information on these sites has been added to the brochure.

This fall, the lifeguards will take a water-safety presentation to public schools in the Long Island region.