Teachers returned to school after a winter break in the early 1970s to find that basic rules and regulations of their profession were on the brink of fundamental change.
Assemblyman Charles Jerabek, a Long Island Republican, had tied a package of anti-education legislation to passage of the state budget. Unions were to be barred from standing up for education quality issues, such as curriculum or class size. Contracts were to be restricted to setting salaries and hours, and probation would be extended from three to five years. The Legislature was prepared to pass this horrendous legislation with no input from teachers.
NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler joins Zakiya Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education at a "No More Excuses" rally at the Capitol. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
It was a wake-up call. Teachers erupted in outrage and through fierce advocacy extinguished most of Jerabek's flagrant attempt to diminish the role of educators and their union. With educators working for his opponent, Jerabek was routed in the next election and the few items he did pass were soon overturned.
"Literally and figuratively, this is where the rubber hit the road," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "When educators came together to the Capitol to show the faces behind the movement, the union gained new respect."
The actions by unionists 40 years ago produced VOTE-COPE, the union's voluntary political action fund. They also sparked a steadfast commitment to advocate in Albany, and prompted the creation in 1973 of the Committee of 100, a group of NYSUT activists that has now grown to about 600.
Every year, the Committee of 100 treks to Albany during the legislative session to tell elected representatives firsthand how their legislative actions affect people every day. Several weeks later, the NYSUT activists visit lawmakers in their home offices to keep the conversation going and the agenda moving. And, in between, union activists advocate during special lobby days, join rallies and support coalitions that stand with NYSUT on the issues.
"The personal contact between union member and lawmaker is crucial to our efforts to fight bad laws and change bad policies," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. It makes elected officials know — in no uncertain terms — that they are being held accountable for their actions, he said. At the end of the day, legislators listen to voters.
From left, UUP's Fred Kowal, PSC's Barbara Bowen, NYSUT Executive VP Andy Pallotta and community college leader Ellen Schuler Mauk talk with Senate Higher Education Chair Ken LaValle, center. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.
The confluence of broad, sweeping education initiatives — such as APPR and the implementation of Common Core State Standards, crippling cuts in aid to public K-12 and higher education, a devastating tax cap, ill-advised proposals to offer merit pay — that affect so many members across all constituencies makes the importance of talking to legislators paramount.
Many of the conversations are about the effects of the loss of education programs, increased class size, loss of services and, lately, the significant stress students, parents and educators face because of the lack of appropriate resources necessary for implementing Common Core.
Throughout these interactions, legislators hear about real events that happen, like children bursting into tears because they didn't have time to finish a standardized exam.
NYSUT VPs Kathleen Donahue and Maria Neira join Saratoga-Adirondack BOCES leaders Sandy Carner Shafran, Ruth Shippee and Cliff Brosnan as they prepare to visit with lawmakers. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
Karen Lee Arthmann, School-Related Professionals chapter leader of the Rush-Henrietta Employees' Association and chair of the NYSUT SRP Advisory Committee, says it's harder for a lawmaker "to say no to people when they are standing right in front of you." Legislators "are so much more interested in what we have to say when we're talking to them face to face," she said.
The most effective advocates are rank-and-file school staff, college faculty and health care professionals who are working on the frontlines everyday in the communities that the legislators represent.
"When you start to bring in a wider and wider variety of people who do a variety of jobs from pre-K to post-graduate, you bring stories of how legislation is changing the lives of kids and families," said Philip Cleary of the North Syracuse Education Association, "and the legislators hear that.
"You build relationships with legislators over the years and you know that they trust you," he said. "Things don't always move at the lightning pace you'd like to see, but over time you see that there is movement."
Ellen Mancuso, a recent retiree from the Faculty Association of Monroe Community College, knows how it helps to be a road warrior.
"I probably will never stop coming to Albany, just because it's vitally important for the economy, for the Rochester area and for our students," she said. Students from low-income and middle-class backgrounds "have a tougher time of it, and I believe everybody deserves the right to improve themselves through public higher education."
Mancuso has had 14 different people travel with her to Albany over the years. Some of them were motivated by one specific issue and never came again. Others became regular participants. Many people wanted to do more, but just couldn't, she said.
"It's not a lack of interest, it's a lack of time. Often, if they can't do the visits, they'll get involved in another way," she said. Some members bake or prepare food to support campaign events, and Mancuso makes sure each contribution is recognized. "Everybody knows it comes from the MCC FA," she said.
There's a special value to having NYSUT members team up with students and parents to advocate. Last month, dozens of BOCES students, parents and administrators lobbied for school aid alongside union educators. Five hundred college students came to NYSUT's Higher Education Lobby Day to tell lawmakers how much harder that struggle has gotten in the wake of $2 billion in cuts to New York's public higher education systems in the past five years.
"It is fabulous to be doing this with them, because we are doing it for them," said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress. PSC represents faculty and staff at the City University of New York.
"We are united in defense of the principles and the values of public education," said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents academic and professional faculty at SUNY's state-operated campuses. "The resource we have is us."
It can be a challenge to recruit volunteers, but, depending on the issues that resonate with different people in any given year, NYSUT PAC activists find the people who are eager to help.
"Our goal is always member mobilization," Cleary said. "It's a personal ask. It always comes down to a friend putting a hand on your shoulder and saying, ‘Would you come with me?'"
While hundreds come to Albany, hundreds more have opportunities to participate through in-district lobby days, letter-writing and email campaigns, and rallies and other activities that continue to press lawmakers.
The fact is, activists say Committee of 100 and local lobby days are important, but NYSUT must continue to lobby lawmakers fiercely year around.
It lets them know members are watching. Indeed, union members are keeping track — and tabulating voting records on every important issue. NYSUT will use those records at its biennial Endorsement Conference to decide which candidates to support. When lawmakers support our values and issues, the union will work to support them, Pallotta said.
"Everybody went to school, so they all think they know how to run schools," said Tim Southerton, Sayville TA president and a member of the NYSUT Board. "But nobody can advocate for schools, campuses, students, patients and communities better than we can. We have the first-hand knowledge."