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People Project
Aug 21

North Country union volunteers to save a playground, bringing new meaning to the 'summer slide'

What makes up a beach?

Sand, water, splashing, swimming — and sometimes, union volunteers who eschew flip-flops for work boots.

Not your typical beach scene, right? But that was exactly the scene Friday through Monday at Lisbon’s community beach on the St. Lawrence River, where volunteers from at least eight different unions gathered to construct a desperately needed playground purchased with funds from a NYSUT Solidarity grant through The People Project.

Unionists from local teachers unions, highway departments, corrections officers (NYSCOBA) and electricians (IBEW) were among those who showed up to dig, fit, attach and plant equipment. School administrators also joined the work crew. Dave Bishop Construction donated heavy equipment and did excavating, and food was donated for a cookout lunch.

“It was beyond believable,” said Julie Rexford, a member of the Lisbon Teachers Association who applied for the project grant. “It was beyond my expectations.” Even after hitting bedrock in a few spots and having to shorten some of the equipment, the work went forward.

Erin Covell, director of The People Project, said volunteers came from Lisbon, Morristown, Heuvelton, Canton, Massena and Ogdensburg local teachers’ and non-instructional support-staff unions.

“I can’t say enough about the teachers and their hard work,” said Mike O’Neil, director of the beach and 100-site campground on the property. “The playground is used right through until we close in mid-October.”

But last year, there was no playground after it was condemned by the company that insures the property, leaving kids from the many surrounding communities who use this “jewel” of a beach and campground without a place to slide and swing.

The new one built by volunteers now boasts colorful equipment that’s made in the USA, and includes lime green slides and rainbow-colored climbing arches, swings and stairs.

Rexford, who teaches high school English and is a resident of Lisbon, found out about the condemned playground last summer, after she successfully applied for a grant from the People Project to reinstate a swim program at the popular beach. She was one of many teacher volunteers who helped run the program last summer, coordinating buses and planting her feet in the sand. The scenic beach is on a wide swatch of the river, and is not supported by taxpayer money, she said.

“Really, honestly, this is the jewel of Lisbon. It’s a real community gathering place,” said Rexford, adding that kids and families come from many surrounding towns, including Canton, Ogdensburg, and Heuvelton.

“It’s just another example of how labor unions in the North Country understand the value of unionism and how they support community,” said Covell, who is also president of the Massena Federation of Teachers. She said the $44,000 grant was the largest one that the People Project has awarded.

Rexford said applying for the union grant was challenging, since it had to involve different unions and community groups, illustrate how it would help students, engage union members, and involve the school and community working together. But, she said, the challenge was worth it.

“The best part about it was spending time there and understanding how important it was. It was so exciting,” said Covell, noting that kids hung out wanting to help and learned about unionism in action.

The next time an educator refers to the “summer slide” that some students experience when school’s out, you can point them to Lisbon Beach.

local presidents
Aug 09

Summer school's in session for new union leaders

At the end of the week, Port Washington teacher Regina McLean is finally taking the vacation she’s been waiting for all summer. This brand new local union president has been immersing herself in learning about all things union at the NYSUT Leadership Institute, an American Federation of Teachers convention, the NYSUT endorsement conference, and, this week, the NYSUT New Local Presidents Conference.

Why is she spending hot, humid summer days in conference centers? She’s part of a movement of veteran and new leaders tracking the attacks on the labor movement by those who want to see less for the workers and more for themselves.

“There is a new reality here,” NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale told the new local presidents gathered for a three-day conference. “It’s a post-Janus world…We need to engage members on the importance of the labor movement.”

“My vision really is to get more members involved; to show them it’s not the union, it’s their union,” said McLean, who just took office of her Nassau County local union on July 1.

After her vacation, there will be more learning experiences at regional conferences hosted by NYSUT.

Unions have been in full gear hosting educational programs, training, and going door-to-door to have members sign cards and recommit to their unions.

“We’re a very strong, very caring, fighting union,” Andy Pallotta, NYSUT president, promised the new local union presidents. He told the leaders how, at NYSUT’s endorsement conference earlier in the week, the union withheld endorsements from every state senator who voted for more charter schools and against reforms to the state’s broken testing and evaluation system. He said NYSUT activists will work hard to elect the dozens of other candidates for state and federal office who have earned the union’s endorsement

NYSUT Political Director Melinda Person showed the new presidents the routes that big money campaigns are taking to detract from the labor movement, including email, advertisements, direct mail and canvassing roll-outs from organizations such as Mackinac, New Choice and Freedom Foundation — all backed by wealthy billionaires such as the Walton Family and the Koch brothers.

“The labor movement is the last line of defense between them completely controlling the economy,” Person said. “They need to see that being part of the union is being part of something bigger.”

At NYSUT headquarters for the first time, math teacher Cynthia Klein was elected president of the 240-member Cornwall Central Teachers Association last year after serving four years as treasurer.

“I’m always looking for ways to improve solidarity and to show the importance of the union,” she said.

Greece TA President Brian Ebertz, who now leads 1,050 members, took over his new role in March, following stints as a building representative and serving on negotiations.

“We’re a strong, united local,” he said. “We have motivated people and shared leadership.”

Ebertz attended both the endorsement conference and the event for new local presidents.

“We want to be assets to our members in all kinds of ways,” he said.

While many of this summer’s conferences are regularly hosted by NYSUT, there is more emphasis this year on member engagement in light of the recent Janus case.

At this week’s New Local Presidents conference, shiny new union presidents are being taught about all the ways that NYSUT can support them through technical services, communications, membership benefits, legal aid and more. Political action is a separate arm of the union funded through voluntary contributions made to VOTE-COPE. Political funds do not come out of union dues, Pecorale stressed.

“We have a tremendous cast of characters to move the labor movement forward,” Pecorale said of NYSUT staff.

Aug 08

NYSUT issues endorsements; holds senators accountable for votes on teacher evaluations

ALBANY, N.Y. Aug. 8, 2018— New York State United Teachers today withheld endorsements from every state senator who voted for more charter schools and against reforms to the state’s broken testing and evaluation system in the waning hours of the legislative session, but backed dozens of other candidates for state and federal office.

At its three-day meeting, NYSUT enthusiastically backed state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli for re-election; endorsed 37 state Senate candidates; supported 136 candidates for state Assembly; and recommended to its national affiliates the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and some two dozen members of Congress. The union also backed Letitia James for attorney general.

“In endorsing for state Senate, we are standing with those who have stood consistently with us,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “We made clear to the entire Senate and its leaders that Senate Bill 8992 carried serious consequences. Those senators who turned their backs on teachers and public education — and held students and educators hostage in hopes of dealing for more charter schools — are now being held accountable for their vote.”

Pallotta said candidates who earned NYSUT’s endorsement all “showed through their advocacy, their accessibility and their strong pro-education, pro-labor voting records that they are true friends of public education, organized labor and working people. They have demonstrated a willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with educators to fight for better public schools, colleges and hospitals. We are proud to support them and will work hard to get them elected.”

Pallotta noted that NYSUT’s endorsement means “an army of members will be knocking on doors, handing out campaign literature and making tens of thousands of personal phone calls on behalf of favored candidates.” He added, “Candidates know that a NYSUT endorsement means ‘feet on the street’ — the energy of passionate and enthusiastic volunteers who know the issues, vote in every election and get their friends and colleagues out to vote as well.”

New York State United Teachers is a statewide union with more than 600,000 members in education, human services and health care. NYSUT is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

student activists
Aug 07

Student activists offer hope for the future of our democracy

These students are too young to vote. But they're already making a difference.

Sanari Ismail is 13 years old. She is changing the world.

This past spring, she convinced the administration at her Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland to allow students to participate in the National School Walkout in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting tragedy that took 17 lives and injured 17 others.

She didn’t do it alone.

“I did not have the support of the administration, or of the other students,” she said, “but what helped me were the teachers, who were not supposed to do it, but who helped me behind the scenes.”

Speaking to several hundred educators and union activists at the NYSUT Presidents Conference on Endorsements today in Colonie, Ismail urged educators to help their students who are motivated to take action.

“Give your students a voice,” she said.

student activists

She was one of seven students who presented a panel discussion, “Too Young to Vote, Old Enough to Take Action.” They said educators do a lot to help develop young citizens, but many times, they could do more.

“School should be a place where you can develop a political consciousness,” said Genesis Logan, 16, from Brooklyn, by infusing civics and citizenship into creative curriculum, particularly art, music and writing.

“There’s something empowering about being in a roomful of young people who want to change the world,” she said. “Schools in Brooklyn are not pushing that kind of thing.”

Jordyn Bucci-Mooney, 18, a senior at Shaker High in Latham and a GLSEN activist, said in addition to inclusive curriculum, inclusive school policies, and safe places for students who are often harassed for their sexual orientation or gender expression, students need supportive teachers.

“You don’t have to come into class on the first day and say, ‘I am a liberal teacher and I will support you.’ That’s not what we’re looking for.

“To have open discussions in a classroom setting over controversial topics is very difficult, but needs to happen,” she said.

Mallory Sunday, 17, from Massena High School near the Canadian border, has gotten involved with the regional “People Project,” backed by NYSUT and the Massena TA, led by President Erin Covell. The project started when area labor unions — including teachers and steel workers — came together to save valuable jobs for the community at the local aluminum plant.

“I was so inspired to learn that the unions … had banded together” to help save the community from economic despair, Sunday said.

Also on the panel were O’Shunn Gibson-Henry, of Rochester; Acadia Gilcrest, Jamesville-Dewitt; and Nupal Kiazolu, Brooklyn.

Photo Gallery: NYSUT Endorsements Conference 2018

2018 Presidents Conference

Earlier in the day, participants heard an update on the 2018 legislative session[LINK to our wrap up from JULY NU] and a look ahead to 2019.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli gave brief greetings and said the fiscal outlook going into next year is not great, with a projected deficit of $4 billion as we head into next year’s budget talks.

“We’re going to have our challenges,” said NYSUT Legislative Director Chris Black.

Black said priorities for next year include fair and adequate funding for K-12, higher education and health care; final resolution of the unresolved APPR fix; expansion of the loan forgiveness program and other steps to address the teacher shortage; and further steps to strengthen the state’s Taylor Law in the wake of the Janus decision.

“This decision can’t hurt us as long as we all stick together,” said President Andy Pallotta. “It’s an opportunity to make our union even stronger.”

Political Director Melinda Person said the billionaires who funded the Janus case did so for one reason: because we are so strong politically.

She outlined our vision: good jobs; affordable health care; great public schools and access to higher ed; a vibrant democracy with a free press and unfettered rights to vote, and to stand against discrimination and bigotry in all their forms.

“We have a very big tent in the labor movement,” she said. “ Everybody is welcome.”

Person outlined our mission: to be a check on the DeVos agenda and to take back one of the houses of Congress; to see Democratic Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins installed as majority leader of the state Senate; and to protect our friends and punish our enemies.

healthy schools toolkit
Aug 07

Coalition for Healthier Schools offers new 'Back-to-School Toolkit' for educators

To help empower parents, teachers, school leaders and others to advocate for cleaner, healthier schools, the Coalition is today releasing a Back to School (BTS) Toolkit, with information and how-to guides. Among the tools available in the kit are a draft op-ed, sample social media content, as well as fact sheets and guidance on addressing lead in school water, finding lead-free computers and tablets for school use, safer pest control for schools (Integrated Pest Management), and green cleaning products.

Aug 06

Union activism lays foundation for retiree’s work with Peace Corps

During his 40 years of teaching biology, anatomy and life science in Orchard Park, Tony Agnello was also busy experimenting with how he could improve the lives of others.

Now in retirement, he is strengthening and mobilizing community outreach through his work with the Peace Corps Alliance for Intercultural Understanding — doing so at a time in which democracy is under attack, and while fear and disillusionment reign.

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