About 350 local and retiree leaders packed informational workshops on topics from school accountability to engaging School-Related Professionals during the annual Local and Retiree Council Presidents Conference that precedes NYSUT's Representative Assembly.
Pledge to Vote
Leaders learned about the union's new Pledge to Vote campaign, which aims to increase voter turnout among NYSUT members by having them formally commit to vote in local, state and national elections.
NYSUT Political Director Melinda Person said research shows that when people make formal commitments to do something they are more inclined to follow through. Similar vote-pledge campaigns on the national level — such as Rock the Vote — have resulted in voter turnout increases of 10 percent or higher, she said.
The goal of NYSUT's pledge campaign — piloted by some locals throughout the state — is to persuade 95 percent of all local members to take the vote pledge.
Person said NYSUT voters have influence at the polls, noting that members account for between 5 percent and 8 percent of the electorate in each of New York's state Assembly and Senate districts.
NYSUT regional political organizer Ian Phillips underscored that point, explaining that, by specifically targeting the voter turnout of NYSUT members, the union was able to make the difference in a successful tax-cap override vote recently in Tioga.
With NYSUT's support, members will receive postcards from their locals on which they can take the pledge to vote. The pledge will also be available for members to take online at pledge.nysut.org.
Person said while people don't want to be told how to vote, the union must engage members to become active in the political process. When it comes to the ability to determine elections, she said, our members "make a difference."
Increasing retiree voter strength
NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale thanked retiree leaders for their hard work and encouraged them to "keep doing what you're doing" by advocating on issues important to union members. Robert Roach Jr., president of the Alliance for Retired Americans, encouraged attendees to support pro-worker candidates in the November elections.
"It's time to clean house in the U.S. Senate and the House, and to elect a Congress willing to work with the president," he said.
Barry Kaufmann, newly elected president of the New York State Alliance for Retired Americans, discussed NYSARA's switch from a public charity to a social welfare organization, a move that will allow for greater political engagement and voter education.
"Seniors vote, but too many don't vote their interests," said Kaufmann who stressed the power of NYSARA's 440,000-member voting bloc.
Challenges to unions continue
One hundred and fifty local union presidents packed a conference room to examine how the twists and turns in legal challenges to unionism affect everyday business and all members.
The Supreme Court's recent split decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association — which, had it passed, would have allowed free riders to enjoy the benefits of union rights and advocacy without paying dues — has provided a landing pad for unions to plan their next launch.
"We cannot get complacent," said NYSUT attorney Bob Reilly, who led the workshop. "The barbarians are still at the gate."
Years ago, the Supreme Court established that unions must be inclusive in order to avoid discrimination, he said.
But anti-union forces have enacted numerous plots against the middle class, and continue to twist that to their advantage. Two years ago, Harris v. Quinn threatened union rights, and four other anti-union cases are currently in the pipeline.
"The domino effect of how this can go … is a compelling and dangerous situation," said Jonathan Rubin, NYSUT's director of field and affiliate services. If the courts make it OK for people to have union benefits and protections without paying for them, it would be similar to people opting out of paying for town-provided sanitation but still using the service.
"How do we push it back?" asked Rubin.
Union presidents can work with the knowledge that people care about certain issues, and to approach them from that perspective: a good contract; community outreach; maintaining a healthy and safe workplace; righting grievances; and protesting over-testing or unfair performance reviews.
"Strife is getting members active," said Trevor Herceg, Endicott Teachers Association.
A union allows people to come together to advocate publicly for things they believe in, said Peter Verdon, NYSUT regional staff director for Suffolk County.
"We need to listen," Rubin said. "They may have issues we haven't heard of."
Additionally, the prospect of a New York State Constitutional Convention could threaten certain protections.
Educating people about just how damaging a constitutional convention could be "must be one of our primary attacks," said Annie McClintock, president of United Teaching Assistants of Harborfield.
Strategies for APPR
Armed with the latest do's and don'ts for negotiating a new teacher evaluation agreement, Malverne TA's Cinthia Thorp left the workshop a lot better prepared for an Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) meeting next week.
"Our superintendent keeps telling us how difficult it is to get local measures approved and now I know that's not true," Thorp said, after NYSUT Director of Policy and Program Development Dan Kinley told leaders that the State Education Department has already approved more than 200 local assessments during this APPR transition period.
"It was so helpful to talk to other local presidents and hear what they're doing," said North Tonawanda UT's Michelle Watson, who listened intently as other local presidents at her table talked about how their APPR plans use districtwide Regents Exam grades as local assessment measures. "We really hadn't thought of that, so this was really worthwhile for me."
West Hempstead Education Association President Barbara Hafner was intrigued to hear how another district was meeting its external observation requirement with a 15-minute walk-through focused on classroom management.
In fact, Hafner said she got so much out of the State Budget, Accountability and APPR session she planned to attend it a second time to see what other tips she might pick up.
The APPR portion of the work session was of utmost interest as locals must have a new plan in place by Sept. 1, or lose state aid increases for both this year and next. The plans must include new assessment measures that will replace growth scores tied to grade 3-8 state assessments, after the Regents approved a four-year ban on linking grade 3-8 assessment results to teacher evaluations.
"This is an opportunity to think of different performance-based assessments or using measures that are already in place, such as Regents exams," Kinley said. "SED is approving things that weren't approved before, like districtwide measures."
"We were gun-shy about using districtwide measures, but I feel a lot better after hearing the pros and cons," Thorp said. "And I'm really excited because it sound like this could really cut down on testing — and that's what we all want."
Contrary to what some leaders might assume, money is not the most pressing priority of newer members. In fact, according to a recent NEA survey, professional development is the number one issue. Or is it?
Moving beyond assumptions (even survey results) and finding out what your members care about was the message for more than 30 School-Related Professionals. How do you find out what they need? Ask them.
Leaders discussed using techniques, such as having one-on-one conversations and meeting members where they are.
Professional development has long been a priority for the statewide union. NYSUT recently launched an inexpensive online course on dealing with difficult students; more topics are currently in development. "It's really to the district's benefit to allow you to use it as professional development," said Melissa Barreto, BOCES Teachers Association WE2. She recently negotiated with her district to use the course. "We're always working with difficult students."
To help members meet their certification requirements, NYSUT Board member Shelvy Young-Abrams, United Federation of Teachers, shared how her local created a very successful paraeducator academy several years ago with the NYC Department of Education.
Other critical issues SRPS discussed include the 2017 vote on a state Constitutional Convention and the successful Fight for $15 campaign.