August 03, 2016

Leadership Institute: Never underestimate the power of collective action

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT Communications
leadership institute
Caption: NYSUT Leadership Institute participants populate a team timeline with events including labor history, national issues and personal milestones. Photo by Marty Kerins, Jr.

From team-building games to labor history lessons to an eye-opening personality profile, participants in NYSUT's 15th Leadership Institute learned a lot about themselves — and the power of collective action when it comes to being an effective leader.

"If you're doing it by yourself, you're doing it all wrong," was a key takeaway during the intensive five-day conference this week at NYSUT Headquarters.

"I also learned how much we have in common whether you're from a big local or a small local, we're all brothers and sisters in the labor movement," said Rockville Centre Teacher Association's Viri Pettersen. "I've been a local president for a long time, but this has been truly exhilarating."

American Federation of Teachers Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker keynoted the opening night session, explaining the importance of having a collective vision and a shared responsibility to make it happen.

Ricker, former president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, said belonging to a union must be like a gym membership, where it's not enough to just join. In order to become stronger, members must participate — exercise together and be a part of a larger community.

"If you go out for a march and your members don't follow, then you are just taking a walk," said Elizabeth Vignaux, a labor relations specialist from Western New York who led several workshops. She urged the up-and-coming leaders to think of their union work as "transformational" rather than "transactional."

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Leadership Institute 2016

As an example, she offered the "Parable of the Pushpin," with credit to AFT Deputy Director Rick Kuplinski. She described a union leader who worked in a government office, where the local's union contract stipulated there would an informational bulletin board posted prominently in the building.

One day the employer suddenly removed the beautiful bulletin board, claiming the pushpins could fall out and create a safety hazard.

Now the union leader had a couple choices, Vignaux said. He could file a grievance and let the issue get resolved that way. Instead, he sat down at the computer and fired off a quick paragraph to his members explaining what the boss had done. He asked his members, if they believed the action was unfair, to print and post the attached flier explaining why the bulletin board should not have been removed. When he returned from lunch, the union leader was amazed to see the fliers were posted all over the place.

"Not only was the bulletin board restored to its rightful place, but this collective action empowered members by using nontraditional means," Vignaux said. "And of course it sent a powerful message to the employer."

Leadership Institute participants shared a wide range of examples where their locals had successfully used collective action to bring about change.

Chittenango TA's Dave Chizzonite told how members met one Friday night at a regional office to talk about how to deal with a bullying principal. Their local president, NYSUT Board member Andrew Voigt, knew the members were fearful, but told them "If everybody sticks their neck out, nobody's sticking their neck out (alone)." In the end, Chizzonite said, 56 out of 58 members signed a letter of condemnation and "the problem ended right there. It was a very powerful moment for us."

Tri-Valley TA's Matt Haynes told how his small Sullivan County local grew tired of his local's name literally being cut out of positive articles posted on the district's "Wall of Fame." That spurred the local to start a Facebook page, which has grown very popular and improved the union's morale and standing in the community.

In another good experience with social media, Waverly TA's Tammy Romania said the union used a Facebook page to take on the district's unilateral decision to suddenly remove all appliances, including classroom fans, for "health and safety" reasons.

The Facebook posting, which received thousands of shares, urged parents to dress their kids appropriately for 90–100 degree temperatures. "The community rallied behind us and we got our fans back," Romania said. "It was a quick solution."

Other workshops dealt with the union's role in promoting social justice issues, courageous labor history leaders who have made a difference, and coalition-building.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta talked about how various coalitions have helped the union stand up to the governor, turn the tide on the state's test-and-punish agenda, change the leadership of the Board of Regents and beat back voucher proposals in the Legislature.

"Coalitions work," Pallotta said, noting local activists working with community groups attracted statewide attention when they were able to turn around the Buffalo School Board. When the Board of Regents was considering APPR (teacher evaluation) regulations, Pallotta said activists sent 27,000 emails within three days using NYSUT's Member Action Center. And he proudly held up posters showing thousands of protesters who took part in demonstrations on the Million Dollar Staircase at the State Capitol. The next item on the political agenda, Pallotta said, will be the upcoming elections and get-out-the-vote efforts. "Every single race has statewide ramifications," he said.

NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner, himself a graduate of the Leadership Institute several years ago, urged participants to feed off each other's ideas and take full advantage of the networking opportunities. He said more than 700 members have graduated from the NYSUT Leadership Institute, with many moving on to become local presidents, political activists and NYSUT officers and Board members.

"Hopefully this is just the beginning," Messner said. "It's all about working relationships, here at the conference and beyond."


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