September/October 2013
September 16, 2013

Iannuzzi: Our collective voice is being heard

Author: Richard C. Iannuzzi
Source: NYSUT United

iannuzziLabor Day announced the month of September in the context of what we do, and the AFL-CIO national convention, one week later, underscored the importance of America's workforce as the key to a strong economy built on a viable middle class.

I had the privilege (along with officers Maria Neira, Kathleen Donahue and Lee Cutler) to be elected as a delegate to the AFL-CIO's convention representing the American Federation of Teachers. The business of the convention reminded me of how important it is to reflect on who we are, where we are in our journey — and to recommit ourselves to reclaiming our professions.

This is an especially exciting time of year for those who work in our public schools and on our college campuses. The early fall brings with it much anticipation — a sense that we have a fresh start and another opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the children in our community. That same enthusiasm is shared by countless workers in health care and human services as they are renewed with the change of seasons.

Still, while this may be an exciting time for many NYSUT members, it is also a challenging time. Many of our higher education sisters and brothers were greeted this semester by constrictive dictates about what to teach and when. Many in health care and public services face privatization schemes designed to line corporate pockets at the cost of workers and those they serve. And K-12 teachers have returned to their schools confronted by state test scores for students and their own individual composite scores — meaningless scores based on bad data that in isolation are misleading and hurtful for both teachers and their students.

Adding to the anxiety is a state Capitol where too many politicians, worried about the next election, continue to march to the drumbeat of cuts and downsizing. Instead of adequately investing in our public schools, health care institutions, public agencies or our colleges and universities, they fill the airwaves and print media with bellicose threats (a "death penalty" for failing schools ... really Gov. Cuomo?). This is all made worse by a property tax cap that cripples the ability of both school districts and municipalities to fund vital programs and services, and to support their community's priorities.

Sounds bleak? Perhaps. But there is reason to be optimistic.

After several years of naysayers, finger-pointers and the anti-everything-public crowd dominating the debate, our voices are being heard. In fact, there is clear, hard evidence that our strategic efforts are changing the narrative. Through alliances, advocacy, strong fact-based messaging in the media and well-thought-out public actions, we are shifting public opinion and making progress with policymakers and opinion-shapers.

As an example, the recent national PDK/Gallup poll, specific to education, found that the vast majority of Americans (72 percent) have confidence in the men and women who teach in our nation's public schools. A majority of parents would give their schools an "A" or "B." And most respondents see inadequate school funding as the biggest challenge facing public education.

The conversation about issues important to us is changing in other areas as well. We see it in Brooklyn, where the fight to save SUNY Downstate Medical Center was strengthened when we moved the discussion from one about the high cost of health care to one about the importance of Downstate's services in a low-wealth community.

We see it when the debate over "minimum wage" became a debate about a "living wage." And we see it when our retirees change minds by demonstrating why Social Security is a well-earned path to a "secure retirement" and not a government handout.

Yes, words matter; facts matter; passions matter. If we want the tide of public opinion to continue to move in our direction, we must increasingly engage with parents and others in the community in meaningful dialogue, offering common-sense solutions to the challenges we face in our professions and forming lasting partnerships that benefit all parties.

Your voices — united as one — must continue to be raised. We know how to get it right, and together we can and will reclaim the promise of our professions.

Note: Your comments on this column or any issue you wish to share directly with me are welcomed. Email your thoughts to dialogue@nysutmail.org.

Follow President Iannuzzi on Twitter: @RichardIannuzzi