Karen E. Magee’s final speech as NYSUT’s first woman president came down to a few choice words: voice, solidarity and persistence.
Voice, she said, is the word that summarizes what the union means to her.
Solidarity is the essential thing a union must have, she said, especially in a divided country.
And her favorite fight cry in dark times? “Nevertheless: She persisted!” she said, echoing the words used by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to describe Elizabeth Warren after he censured the Massachusetts senator.
The persistence that buoys Magee, she said, is shared: “We have persisted together, sisters and brothers.”
That collective action has resulted in partnering with parents to stop a culture of test-and-punish in schools; in taking on legal fights to defend the need for equity for students; in fighting gag orders and defending members’ rights to speak out; in mobilizing and energizing members to BE the union; and in expanding NYSUT’s focus on women’s priorities. In March, NYSUT held its first-ever conference dedicated to women’s priorities.
Her final address was a personal one for Magee, who talked about being raised in a union household and who was joined at Friday night’s session by her mother and two of her three children.
Delegates Sean Kennedy, Yorktown Congress of Teachers; Christopher Tyler, Harrison Association of Teachers; Martin Daly, New Rochelle F.U.S.E.; Steve Reich, Valhalla Teachers Association; and Pat Puleo, Yonkers Federation of Teachers, introduced a special order of business honoring Magee and her accomplishments and thanking her for her service. Delegates erupted in a standing ovation.
Thank you, sisters and brothers. Let’s consider those words for a minute:
“Sisters and brothers.”
We use them almost automatically, sometimes, don’t we?
As union members, it’s the way we talk.
But those words are truly profound. They carry real significance.
A union is not just any organization.
Our union is, at its heart, a family.
That makes all of us “sisters and brothers.” Sisters and brothers in the family of NYSUT.
By extension, that makes this RA one big family reunion — with all the glory and occasional dysfunction that suggests.
So as we convene our family reunion, it’s a natural time to look at where we’ve been, think about where we want to go … and most especially, think about what keeps us going.
What inspires our fire?
What fuels our fight?
Especially now, with attacks escalating on unions and on workers’ rights.
Especially now, when too many politicians put a price on everything and value nothing we hold dear.
In the face of all this, what inspires our fire and our fight?
For me, it is family. My family of origin and my union family.
My parents gave me a great gift by raising me in a 100 percent union household.
My grandmother was a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
Dad was a member of the Sheet Metal Workers, and my mom was a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
We were a union household and proud of it.
As the only male, my dad had his hands full. He was outnumbered from the start.
There was my mother.
And there was my grandmother, who lived with us.
Then I came along, followed by my two sisters.
Even our family dog was a girl!
Despite the heavy estrogen overload in our family — or maybe because of it — my sisters and I were raised to ignore stereotypes.
It was a given that we would do it all.
In our working class household, “doing it all” usually referred to using the kids as unpaid labor.
Thanks to my mom, my sisters and I learned to cook and sew.
Thanks to dad, we cut the grass, trimmed the hedges and helped with snow removal.
Back in the day, this might have been seen ... as an alarming lack of respect for traditional gender roles.
But it was truly a gift.
I was taught to believe that there was nothing I couldn’t do.
And I was taught to believe you need to stand up for what’s right — even if you are the ONLY voice … and even when it’s hard to do.
Those early lessons were a great preparation for union work.
Perhaps the most important lesson of all was taught by example.
I learned that although there was nothing I COULDN’T DO, I didn’t have to go it alone.
That it was better NOT to go it alone.
I learned at a young age that our extended union family provides strength far beyond anything we can muster ourselves.
And now let me tell you about my greatest inspiration of all — my three children: Caitlyn, Max and AJ.
When I had the opportunity to serve as NYSUT president, they knew how much it meant to me.
And without question, it would mean change and sacrifice for them. They didn’t hesitate.
They told me to go for it, to follow my passion — and their support and love sustains me every day.
It's their inspiration that carries me forward.
These lessons learned from family have made a difference in how I live my life.
I hope, and believe, that I have passed them on to my own children.
And I can tell you this: I have called upon these lessons every-single-day in the three years I’ve been blessed to serve as your president.
As union activists, you know what I’m talking about.
Representing our members … advocating for our members and our students and our patients, we need to find within ourselves the capacity for many different skills and attributes.
Union work requires both compassion and courage.
As NYSUT president, my morning might start by welcoming a group of parents and children.
Earlier this year, we hosted the Cardiac Kids -- a group from the American Heart Association, one of the many causes we are proud to support.
When you have the precious opportunity to spend time with a tiny child who has heart disease, you just know that that get-together is gonna end in a big hug.
And then later in the day, the requirements of union work might necessitate a conversation with the governor.
And you just know that THAT get-together is gonna end in …
Well, let me just say this… you know I’m not talking hugs!
Yes, it takes equal parts compassion and courage to do this union work we are engaged in.
And it takes perseverance.
We’ve all experienced dark days where the forces against us can seem overwhelming.
That’s when it’s especially important to take comfort in the solidarity of our union sisters and brothers. And that keeps us going.
It’s funny how words that are meant to sting can sometimes end up being a kind of benediction.
And in dark times, for me there can be no higher praise than three words:
“Nevertheless: SHE! PERSISTED!”
We have persisted together, sisters and brothers.
And together, we have done tremendous things.
We partnered with parents to opt out of a test-and-punish philosophy that is bad for students and bad for educators!
We took on the tough legal fights to defend the need for equity for our students — a fight that continues and must only intensify in the years ahead.
We successfully fought gag orders and defended our members’
right to speak out, on professional issues!
We expanded communications and we put members front and center … and as a result, thousands of members were mobilized and energized and answered the call to BE the union!
If I had to sum up in one word what the union means to me, it is contained in this simple, yet powerful, concept of voice.
As NYSUT’s president, I have dedicated myself to amplifying our members’ voices — making sure they are heard loud and clear in the media and in the corridors of power in Albany and Washington.
Sisters and brothers, together we have truly established NYSUT as “the voice that cannot be ignored.”
Even the governor has found his voice in praise of New York's educators!
I am especially proud of our progress in expanding NYSUT’s focus on women’s priorities.
It has been my honor and privilege to be NYSUT’s first woman president.
I have deep gratitude for the pioneering women leaders who preceded me and who did so much to make our union great.
And thanks to the dedication of our women’s steering committee, we have paved the way for the generations who follow.
NYSUT’s first ever conference dedicated to women’s priorities — “Speak Up, Stand Up, Step Up!” — was a big success, with capacity participation from women and men from all across the state.
Its focus on women’s priorities is an agenda that lifts up all of us: men, women and children.
As you know, sisters and brothers, I have accepted an opportunity to carry forward the mission of the labor movement in a new role.
I will be working closely with my sister AFT President Randi Weingarten and my brother Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, on an exciting new initiative.
I embrace this opportunity to carry forward at the national level the causes near and dear to my heart: advancing opportunities for women and empowering positive change through the labor movement.
It is not easy to move on from the NYSUT work I love to do.
Yet this new direction is made easier by the realization of all we have accomplished together.
Our union is stronger and more powerful than it was three years ago.
Our members’ voices are being heard.
Whatever we have achieved over these last three years, sisters and brothers, it was done together.
The successes — and there are many — belong to you.
As I tackle new challenges at the national level, I will be proud to build on what we have done here together.
So now it is time to look forward … to look forward with hope.
Someone asked me last week what gives me hope, and I thought I’d share the answer with you.
What gives me hope is when the light goes on in a child’s eyes … a light that says, I get it, I understand.
A light that ignites a lifelong love of learning.
What gives me hope is listening to my three grown children discussing candidates for public office and debating with passion who best embodies what they value.
I have great, great hope for the younger generation!
What gives me hope is recalling the Women’s March in Seneca Falls where I was so proud to be shoulder-to-shoulder with more than 10,000 women AND men — an incredible turnout! — and the equally passionate member participants at our NYSUT conference on women’s priorities who made it clear they will continue to Speak Up! Stand Up! And Step Up!
What gives me hope is the memory and the inspiration of seeing thousands and thousands of NYSUT members turn out for rallies and protests and at the voting booth in support of a union and agenda that’s good for our children and our communities!
It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as your president.
And now, as I always do, I close with an “ask.”
There are so many reasons to have hope, sisters and brothers, for the fights ahead.
And hope is essential.
But there is one more essential thing we must have.
And that is solidarity.
In a country divided, where too often the conversation is about putting up walls, we must reject any attempt to build walls between us.
As a union family, we must BUST. THROUGH. BARRIERS!
We must BRING. DOWN. WALLS!
We must resist any attempt to fracture our union family … and we must re-commit to the most important principle of all: