They could be at the beach. Or the pool. Instead, as the temperature rises in this summer heat wave, dedicated public school educators are gathering in air-conditioned rooms for session after session of learning how to increase the strength and effectiveness of their local union and improve their communities.
"We're here for long-range planning. We're digging deep to retain sustainability after the program is over," said Susan Kirby-LeMon, a Shenendehowa (Saratoga County) Teachers Association member and school librarian.
STA is a third-year participant in the three-year NYSUT Local Action Project, called LAP. Local union members – working in teams - commit to three years of participation in weeklong summer training.
Their binders are thick. Their schedule is tight. Some first-year participants were overwhelmed by the end of the first day. An outdoor barbeque and camaraderie with other educators helped revive them.
STA members have hosted more family activities, with their biggest hit being a movie night. They've contributed in more ways to their community.
They also learned how to get more politically active. They hosted a barbeque on school budget vote night. The union hosted a sign-up session for the MAC, NYSUT's Member Action Center, that allows members quick access to sending faxes to lawmakers on important issues being considered. The STA assigned a political action coordinator and also hosted a letter-writing campaign to lawmakers at state budget time. On a school level, the LAP local brought middle and high school teachers together for pizza and then attended a school board meeting as a group.
NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale spoke with LAP participants about how to make a mark on social justice issues. Pecorale is a former teacher in Patchogue-Medford, where the Congress of Teachers is one of the local unions that started LAP. When his teaching career began, Pecorale said the CT was picketing. It had been three years without a contract. A negative huge TAX PAC movement on Long Island put schools, teachers and unions in the budget blame game; LAP was formed to counter that movement with positive union action.
"As a local, we kind of developed who we are based on the design of this," Pecorale said.
So, even though the flowers outside the Saratoga conference center where the sessions are being held were looking weary in the heat, "LAP gets people energized and motivated and cranked up to go back to their locals and do serious work," said Martin Messner, NYSUT secretary-treasurer who oversees LAP.
This year, union involvement is especially important in the national elections.
"We'll solicit these people to go campaign in battleground states," said Messner.
Betsy Pierce, local president of the 86-member Fabius-Pompey Educators Association, said that since their first year at LAP in 2015 the local union has created a medley of new events.
At last year's annual back-to-school picnic, unionists put their own condiments on those hot dogs. They educated their colleagues about Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, which would have allowed workers to receive the benefits of being in a union without paying dues, and about the damage a Constitutional Convention could cause.
Leaders worked to make sure people knew about the event. "We made personal calls to get people to the picnic," Pierce said.
They also bought matching EA shirts for members, who started wearing them on the school's regular fundraising dress-down "Jeans for Kids" days for students who have financial needs.
"We got a lot of recognition," said EA member Julia Harrod. "Students had a ton of questions." Many were unaware of the EA.
Activism was also addressed at this local union. "We did a big VOTE-COPE push," said Pierce, cradling her arm in a sling from a pinched nerve that, while painful, did not dampen her zeal. "We went from zero to $2,000."
VOTE-COPE is NYSUT's voluntary political action fund, which provides money to support pro-education, pro-labor candidates.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta explained to LAP members that VOTE-COPE hit $9.5 million statewide last year and he hopes it will hit $10 million this year.
"There's so much more fight in us," he said. "Last year at the Capitol, we had a protest about every 10 days."
The MAC has helped get many educators active: One day last year, 7,200 faxes were sent from it.
"Everybody can do something," Pallotta said.