NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner invoked the words of Winston Churchill during his address to RA delegates Friday night, vowing that the union would “never surrender” in its battles against right-wing ideologues who are working to topple the American labor movement.
“We will never let that happen,” Messner said. “Our strength doesn't lie in billion-dollar bank accounts, luxury properties or bought-and-paid-for politicians. Our strength is in our members who live in every corner of this state. … Our strength is in our unity of common purpose for our members, for our students, for our patients, for the middle class and for social justice.”
It is my most profound honor to be here with you today.
Over the last three years I've had the opportunity to travel this large diverse state and meet many of you.
From Western, NY to Long Island.
NYC to the North Country, Capital Region to the Southern Tier, Hudson Valley to Central NY…... Traveling this state meeting local leaders and having conversations with members is the best part of my job.
There may be differences in culture, opinion and concerns, but there are so many things that bring us together.
Everyone in this great hall tonight cares deeply about students, everyone cares about quality hospitals and healthcare.
Everyone wants a fully funded Higher Education system that secures our economic future.
Everyone here believes in workers’ rights, Social Justice and advocates for those who are less fortunate.
It are these common threads that allow us to transcend barriers and unite for the common good.
These are bonds that some seek to tear apart.
They seem to be under the mistaken impression that these bonds are breakable.
Let us assure them here tonight that they are not.
No matter what law, court decision or billionaire you throw at us, NYSUT will always be there and we will always fight for our students, our members and for workers’ rights.
I’d like to kick it off tonight by talking about some of NYSUT’s best programs.
Hidden gems that I encourage all of you to participate in.
First the Local Action Project.
Last year 20 locals from across the state spent a week working on member mobilization, political action, community outreach and coalition building.
We have expanded program offerings on using membership data to build capacity, local leadership, school board and budget races 2.0, school board candidate training, and crafting messages that reflect our values as unionists.
We also recently brought LAP into the 21st century by offering ZoHo, an online cloud computing software system that almost every LAP local is using.
Please take a moment to talk to one of the many LAP locals here and I promise you’ll want to be part of this cutting edge program.
We then have the NYSUT Leadership Institute that just finished training its largest class since its inception in 1997.
64 local leaders, who represent every region of the state and almost every constituency group, graduated from this 9-day program.
This class of extraordinary participants created a powerful and lasting community of NYSUT leaders eager to take on the challenges facing our union in the coming months and years.
We welcome their advocacy and passion and look forward to working with them to confront the challenges in the days and years ahead.
Congratulations to the NYSUT Leadership class of 2016.
Both of these programs are run by the indomitable Maureen Rizzi.
Her influence extends to generations of unionists throughout this hall and, sadly, she has recently announced her upcoming retirement.
Maureen, NYSUT owes you a debt of gratitude.
Thank you for your service and know that you always have a home at NYSUT and your work will echo throughout this organization for decades to come.
NYSUT Member Benefits, run by Lynette Metz, is widely recognized as one of the premiere union benefit programs in the entire country.
The work in their office is constant.
Staff attended or presented at approximately 300 meetings, workshops and conferences across the state.
They answered over 48,000 phone calls and handled approximately $112 million in payroll- and pension-deductions.
Participation in our endorsed Member Benefit programs remains steady with over 300,000 or 50% of our membership participating in one or more of our endorsed programs and services.
I would like to highlight a major change to one of our programs.
I’m happy to report that after years of research and legal review, the very popular Catastrophe Major Medical Plan is going to be open to new participants in May and June of this year.
This supplemental health insurance plan has been closed to new participants since 2011 and the trustees of the fund have worked diligently with the fund’s consultants and attorneys to once again make this valuable coverage available to eligible participants.
A full report has been provided to the delegates that highlights a number of our other programs and I encourage you to read the report and help spread the word.
I want to remind you that when you participate in any Member Benefits endorsed program or service we are here to act as your trusted advocate.
Some NYSUT members report that being an advocate is our greatest role.
You are encouraged to contact Lynette or any of our staff members with any questions, concerns or comments pertaining to our endorsed programs and services.
Three years ago today we assumed financial stewardship of a NYSUT that was hemorrhaging cash and still reeling from the great recession.
Due to a series of deficits that reached as high as $12 million a year, reserves had plummeted by 40 percent.
The NYSUT pension plan was in severe trouble and was on the edge of being frozen. At the same time, our enemies were closing-in on us as they sensed a weakened NYSUT.
We changed the dynamic at NYSUT.
Officer perks were eliminated and sensible reforms were implemented to halt the downward slide.
Tonight, I am proud to report that after a great deal of hard work NYSUT is in the black for the 3rd year in a row and we have fully restored NYSUT's reserves to pre-recession levels.
At the same time that we were strengthening NYSUT’s reserves, the NYSUT employee pension plan improved from a low of 61 percent funded to 88 percent funded today - the highest it's been since 2008.
However, the plan is not without issues.
It requires substantially high investment returns in order to remain viable.
Due to interest rates, phasing out of the federal pension smoothing and a change in the mortality tables, we are expecting cost to rise rapidly over the next six years.
A dip in the markets could also put the plan at risk.
In order to address this concern, the Board of Directors has moved to create a special reserve fund to help with future spikes in the plan.
We plan to put in approximately $3.3 million dollars into this fund by September 1st.
We are also meeting jointly with all three bargaining units to look at options that bring more stability and security to the fund because we believe in providing our employees with a strong and secure retirement.
Accountability, responsibility and strategic use of our resources have brought a degree of balance to NYSUT’s year to year operations.
But there are significant challenges in our future that threaten our financial well being, indeed our very existence and our reserves alone won’t be enough to see us through the challenges ahead.
As you are well aware, with the election of Donald Trump and the Republican control of the federal government, we are at high risk to be subjected to agency fee.
Agency fee has been passed in 26 states to devastating effect.
It is specifically designed to weaken and end unions by hitting them in their pocket books so unions don't have the resources to advocate for their members in the their state legislature, don’t have the lawyers to press cases when their members are unjustly penalized, and doesn't have the staff to provide the field services that their dues-paying members rely on so heavily.
New York is a blue state.
It is a union state, and when NYSUT was designed it was around the sound foundation that everyone would pay their fair share for services.
It is the hope of the right-wing, that by dismantling this basic foundation of our organization, they will cause us to teeter and collapse like so many other unions across the country.
That New York, one of the last significant bastions of the labor movement, will roll up and pave the way for right-wing special interest groups to finally take over and restore this country to a new Gilded age where the rich have it all and the rest of us barely scrape by.
But we have a message for them.
We will Never let that happen.
Our strength doesn't lie in billion dollar bank accounts, luxury properties or bought and paid for politicians.
Our strength is in our members who live in every corner of this state.
Our strength is in the best and most talented staff in the country.
Our strength is in our unity of common purpose for our members, for our students, for our patients, for the middle class, and for social justice.
As England was preparing for invasion during WWII, Winston Churchill said “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
And it is in that vein that we will prepare for the fights to come.
The Board of Directors has authorized a plan to build up our reserves for the coming storm.
We are setting the lofty goal of setting aside 70 million dollars by summer of 2018 for the battles ahead, plans are in the works for a major surge in our fieldwork, we are developing a sophisticated member outreach system that both educates our members on the value of the union and makes it easier for our local leaders to get the assistance they need.
New tools are coming online including our new data system that we've been developing with the AFT for the last year and a program that makes dues payments quick and easy in the event that we are stripped of payroll deduction.
We are preparing legal challenges and emergency legislation for every contingency.
Everything that can be done will be done.
We will leave no stone unturned.
We will fight this battle and, if we persist, our enemies won't land on our shores.
Rather, like England, it will be us who storms across the channel to fight on their turf.
Nothing is impossible if we remain united with a singular purpose of fighting for those causes we believe in.