February 11, 2016

Grassroots solidarity takes hold in Buffalo

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
buffalo activists
Caption: A full house in Buffalo. Photo provided.

A union-strengthening summit held in Buffalo last weekend drew an unprecedented 242 people, representing 49 different public schools.

"What was most fascinating were the many new faces … they were there because they cared. People were energized and wanted to pull together – despite receivership, despite APPR, despite being without a contract for 12 years," said Phil Rumore, veteran president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

These teachers – like their colleagues across the country, along with all public employees—are also laboring under the cloud of a Supreme Court decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could be announced anytime between now and June.

The case, which is attempting to dismantle the creed that all who benefit from union representation should pay a fair share— threatens all public employee unions. As seen at the summit, it has certainly raised adrenalin levels as well.

The wealthy – who are behind the Friedrichs case — are bent on "grinding out the middle class," Rumore said. Unions are "all that stand between (the rich) taking over this country, and we aren't about to let this happen."

The summit provided resources for the pushback.

"The energy was electric," said Mike Deely, NYSUT regional staff director for Buffalo and western New York. He said all members were canvassed about their interest in the summit. Those who came shared experiences from school to school and communicated with colleagues.

"It was one big, giant shot in the arm," Deely said.

The summit focused on union value; internal organizing; getting active in school board elections; local, state and federal elections; and VOTE-COPE voluntary grassroots political action. Several follow-up workshops have already been scheduled, where teachers will be reporting back on the plans they have developed at their particular schools. Data will be shared.

The commitment was palpable. "It's a tribute to teachers. That's Buffalo," said Rumore. "This is about grassroots solidarity."

"Unions are the wall protecting the wealthy elite from dominating the working class and having them work for peanuts," he added. That's why they want to destroy unions.

"It's all about power, money and control."

NYSUT this week filed a lawsuit on behalf of the BTF, which has been targeted with 25 schools in receivership. Receivership is damaging, Rumore said, because it allows the state legislature one single person to undo educators' contracts and to modify agreed upon collective bargaining agreements.

It does not address the primal needs of the school. To fairly address a school in need, conditions need to be addressed, Rumore said. In School 6, where he used to teach, 30 different languages are now spoken; students have come here from many other countries. Many school families suffer from poverty. The need for better resources should be dealt with foremost: classroom sizes, the need for sufficient number of school social workers and counselors, condition of the building, and more help for students learning English.

"These are persistently mislabeled schools," he said.

Deely said the Buffalo Believe campaign involved personal visits to 20,000 doors in Buffalo. More than 5,000 people made themselves available to talk about public education. He said 94 percent were satisfied or very happy with public schools.

"The media narrative doesn't really match with what's going on in schools," he said, noting that wealthy people run the school board in Buffalo with no children in public schools.

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