Know your worth as a union. Then get out there and spread the news to every union member, to the community and to the world.
That was the message being built upon today at the start of NYSUT’s Local Action Project, a weeklong conference to help local unions engage with members, get active and get recognized.
“The single most important thing is to build relationships,” NYSUT Director of Constituency and Program Services Maureen Rizzi implored a roomful of educators, kicking off LAP in Saratoga Spring today. She asked the local union leaders who are seeking to improve their unions to plan every action with this question: “What’s the meaning behind the doing?”
The foundation of all messages needs to be weighted on the fact that “you are a powerful, organized collective union,” Rizzi said.
Some of the seven new locals are ready to find tools to help them get active and get noticed, and others are looking to jumpstart once-active unions that now have a majority of new members, many of them unaware of union history and presence. All of them have vital common ground: They need to be sure that every one of their union members knows the value of the union that represents them, an essential mission in the face of pending Supreme Court cases that could allow workers to opt out of paying union dues while still receiving benefits of laboring in a union workplace. It is just one facet of attacks against the working class and against the unions that represent some workers and lift them to the middle class.
“Step outside of your comfort zone,” Rizzi said. “You’re asking your members to do the same thing. What we face will be unprecedented.”
The goal is to get members to see that their union is a source of pride and value, she said.
Gathering for a week of lessons, brainstorming, camaraderie and educational sessions, the local unions represented members from large unions – the more than 3,000-member Syracuse Teachers Association – to the small unions. Tables were filled with members from Brocton TA, Great Neck TA, Mohawk Valley Community College Professional Association, Monticello TA, Syracuse TA, Utica TA and Webutuck TA. They hailed from the very western edge of New York to the ocean shores of Long Island, as well as central New York. Each has made a commitment to three years of LAP programs.
Mohawk Valley CC PA was a local union on the LAP roster about 15 years ago. Many of the actions that manifested for this local at LAP thrived, ranging from an increase in events, to developing a bright logo, to recording podcasts.
But, with retirements, there has been a big change in leadership, said Norma Chrisman, MVCC PA president and a professional in education technology and online learning. There has also been a vast change in membership.
“The majority of our membership has less than five years,” she said.
“We need to help them find value in what we do,” said MCCCPA member Patti Antanavige, coordinator of adult learner services at the college.
Martin Messner, NYSUT secretary-treasurer, was president of the Schoharie TA and attended LAP as a local leader. He said the program “turned us around ... We did 40 events our first year.”
The Schoharie activities ranged from buying senior citizens tickets to school plays — providing them with an evening out so they could witness school programs and, ultimately, support the annual budget – to hosting a trick-or-treat booth on Main Street with candy for children and a water bottle for adults branded with the Schoharie TA logo.
“It gave us the skills to not just do things but to get credit for doing things,” he said of LAP.
(L-R) Ann Lee, Brocton Teachers Association; Megan Root, Syracuse TA; Monica Baker, Webutuck TA; Marjorie Bohn, Brocton TA. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
Megan Root of the Syracuse TA arrived at LAP pumped up. The Syracuse schools –which her daughter attended before going on to college — are full of wonderful students combined with a lot of poverty, some headline-making violence and even student deaths. This leaves educators, school-related professionals and health care workers worried and exhausted.
One of the plans Root’s crew wants to work on at LAP is to have a regular group therapy/staff support meetings sponsored by the union.
“Instead of PTSD, what we have is perpetual traumatic stress disorder,” said STA union member Bill Scott, a social worker and a local vice president. He said he got involved with his union because, in his profession, he has been trained to think about a systems approach to view the world. He realized he needed to become an advocate in micro ways – at school – and in macro ways – to help change the political climate so that educators can better do their jobs.
“If you’re passionate about what you do, you need to advocate and the best place to do that is in a union,” Scott said.
Root said she works to educate members about unionism and point out to them “what they get that they don’t even realize — tenure, a bridge to the community, advocacy and much more.
Syracuse lost $19.8 million last year to charter schools and stands to lose $23.4 million this coming year if all the charter school slots are filled, STA members reported.
“Charter schools are talking points for the union,” she said, noting that former charter school teachers have returned to the regular public schools and addressed the school board and community groups about the poor functioning of schools they worked at: schools that can fire teachers at will and are not required to meet the same standards as regular public schools, despite state funding.
Speech language pathologist Katelyn Mootz just received her tenure after three years and, as a member of the Utica Teachers Association, she is raring to go this week.
“A lot of leaders are going toward retirement,” she said. “A lot of the newer teachers are not involved. We need improved communication among members and within the community, along with political action.”
Second- and third-year locals will join the newcomers on Tuesday. In all, 20 locals from across the state are participating in LAP this year.