NYSUT members and education reformers have a fundamental difference of opinion about the purpose of public education, Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told RA delegates.
The reformers wrongly apply business models and industrial efficiency principles to the teaching profession, he said.
"Our children are not widgets," Pallotta said. "It is not their job to be ready for college or careers during their childhoods.
"Childhood is for joy, for play, for curiosity and for cultivating a true love of learning," he said.
But, Pallotta cautioned, the union is in a changed environment.
The Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that loosened campaign finance rules means NYSUT must defend its professions against millionaires and billionaires, he said.
In this environment, teaching has become one of the most disrespected professions in the country, he said. The nation's belief in the importance of investing in public higher education has also waned.
Dire threats to labor loom, as well, including a court case that could prevent unions from collecting agency fees from people in bargaining units who do not pay union dues.
"The loss of agency fee threatens our very existence, and an adverse decision could arrive next year," Pallotta said. "We can and we must be ready."
To prepare for the challenges ahead, the state and country need a more diverse set of elected officials who represent the interests of working people, he said.
NYSUT has begun working with groups, such as the Working Families Party, to build a pipeline for progressive candidates — including women, people of color and some from our organizations, he said.
"We're going to use the thousands of local offices — village board, town board, school board — to create a farm team of local leaders and help position them to run for higher office down the road," he said. "In 2015, our goal is to hold candidate recruitment events in every corner of the state."
All of the work ahead presents an opportunity, Pallotta said.
"People are trying to divide us — but I'd ask you to keep your eye on the real enemy. United, we will never be defeated," he said.
At his suggestion, delegates stood, locked arms with those beside them and chanted: "The union united will never be defeated."