July 23, 2015

Local Action Project inspires and motivates

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
lap local
Caption: Team members from the Mexico Academy and Central Schools Faculty Association take in a session. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

It’s time for school: This week, 115 educators from 21 NYSUT locals have been gathering for weeklong classes in building, strengthening and emboldening their unions through an intensive NYSUT program.

Each local union accepted into the Local Action Program signs on for three years in order to start, shape and follow through on projects centered on member involvement, political action, community outreach and communications.

Every night this week, team members have homework to complete based on the day’s lessons: So far, at their Saratoga Springs outpost, they’ve learned about how to get union members interested in the union; how to self-assess each local; how to activate political voice; how to help get pro-public education school board members elected; and how to expand community outreach and let people know how teachers matter outside the classroom as well on the job.

“It’s intensely exciting. We have a lot of work to do,” said an exuberant Trish Moschitta, a kindergarten teacher from the 1,100-member Clarkstown Teachers Association in Rockland County.

Funding cuts, constant criticism of teachers, testing rigors, swift APPR changes, lack of respect, have damaged the profession, Moschitta said.

“This is providing us tools on how to improve morale,” she said.

“Our LRS (NYSUT Labor Relations Specialist Moriah Olsen) told us what LAP could do for our local. These were things we were yearning for,” said Karie Herskowtiz, Clarkstown TA. The local union applied to NYSUT to attend LAP, and was excited to be awarded a slot. “We want more member involvement. We want more community outreach. We want more unity with our three union units (teachers, teacher assistants and clerical). We want to affect relationships with board members.”

Every NYSUT local has a regional LRS who helps the union with issues from bargaining to workplace rights to community outreach. These LRSs attend LAP along with their local unions. Those in LAP are rousing themselves into action against sharp-edged and well-financed attacks on the working class, the teaching profession and organized labor.

“Thank you for your commitment, and for realizing you need a commitment,” NYSUT President Karen Magee told the union members gathered at LAP. “I ask you to be a fully engaged part of your team.”

Building mass will strengthen the union and the future of the profession, she reminded the educators.

These 100-plus activists are also learning timely and critical lessons in how to be proactive in the face of threats to the working class from the Supreme Court decision to hear the case of Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association, which threatens the rights of organized labor to collect fair share fees for bargained workplace rights, pay and working conditions. Workers already have the right to opt out of paying for any political action or membership; this case would allow anti-union workers to reap the benefits of protection without contributing.

Many of the locals here are reinvigorating their responses to community needs.

Lilybeth Torres of the Rockland BOCES Staff Association, which includes 13 districts, and her colleagues are a third-year LAP team. Torres said that, as a result of their work at LAP, her local has substantially more members actively involved in union activities and community events.

The BOCES teachers union now sponsors two schools, she said. For one, they built up a paltry BOCES elementary library with the contribution of 800 books. In another, they helped create a home economics room by purchasing pots, pans, silverware, mixing bowls, placemats and more to help students with disabilities learn to cook and to eat out in public. The constraints of the unfairly weighted tax cap have hurt districts’ ability to generate funding for basic programs like these.

“LAP is definitely inspiring, especially being able to work with NYSUT,” Torres said. “We’re just a team of five but we’re more like 100. We’re getting higher respect in our community because of the things we’re doing.”

Family Fun Nights — staffed with teacher volunteers — train parents learn how to help their children with new math.

Meanwhile, NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale told the eager activists to “Look at your work with a social justice lens.” That can come in the form of helping out local food banks – which many NYSUT unions do on a regular basis – to working on living wages for School-Related Professionals and addressing racial inequalities on committees and programs.

Catalina Fortino, NYSUT vice president, shared how the state’s new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, visited the NYSUT Board of Directors this week within just two weeks of taking on her new post. The objective, she said, was to share “what we (NYSUT) value” with the new commissioner.

Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta and members of his staff gave the LAP participants a primer on political action and how it can translate into legislative victories, while Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner, whose office oversees LAP, welcomed the teams and has been a constant presence at the conference.