April 24, 2018

North Country unionists recommit and fight back against Janus

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
north country
Caption: Massena Federation of Teachers President Erin Covell (left) and NYSUT Labor Relations Specialist Bob Smith meet with union members to talk about the possible outcomes of the Janus v. AFSME Supreme Court case. Photo provided.

Her son had a lacrosse game that afternoon on the field outside the school where she worked as a school counselor. The next week she was going on a trip with the senior class as an advisor. And then the superintendent called her into his office, along with her husband, a social studies teacher. He fired both of them.

They weren’t alone. Earlier that day, he also let several dozen other teachers go. He claimed it was due to budget restraints.

“We had just built a house. It was crazy,” said Erin Covell, president of the Massena Federation of Teachers. “It was at that moment when I sat at that table – it was a moment of feeling completely alone and scared -- and then I felt I had 230 people behind me, knowing I had a strong union working on behalf of me and others.”

She looked at her then-union president, Chad Simpson. He had tears in his eyes. He told her he would get to work and fight to save the positions. And, with NYSUT Labor Relations Specialist Celeste Norman, who has since retired, Simpson did. The jobs were restored.

For Covell, that union moment turned her into a gregarious advocate. She’d been a social chair and building representative for the MFT, and then, later, ran for president of the 230-member union.

  • Get the facts and help to spread the word about our voice, our values and our union. Visit www.nysut.org/janus.

She shared that story this past week with her members, whom she gathered as a group to talk about the possible outcomes of the Janus v. AFSME Supreme Court case.

“We have a lot of younger members. I told them, ‘You may not have had your union moment yet, but you will.’”

Covell held the large gathering to provide a sense of camaraderie among the faculty, and to give them a visual of their union community. She ended the gathering with an ask: Would they be willing to hand sign recommitment cards?

“Nobody refused,” she said.

She’s now following up with people who were not able to be at the meeting as she closes in on 100 percent.

NYSUT has been aiding local unions in getting members to recommit to their unions through visits from LRSs and providing information and resources on its website, where people can sign up electronically to recommit to their union as well.

Other nearby North Country locals, meanwhile, have tapped into history to show how unions have improved the workplace and inspire members to recommit.

After Canton custodians sat down to hear how unions have made a difference in improving the workplace from the days when custodians were hired, handed a broom and worked for $2 an hour, they all signed recommitment cards to their union for a 100-percent return.

“We have a lot of new people come in the door,” said Jeffrey Todd, president of the Canton Central School Custodial Association. “If we didn’t have the union, our wages would not be where they are today. We probably wouldn’t have health insurance and retirement. The guys who retired fought for that.”

He had NYSUT Labor Relations Specialist Bob Smith, a member of the Professional Staff Association, come speak to his 52 members.

“We gave them history,” Todd said.

Knowing how much retirees changed the workplace motivates Todd to carry the message.

“These guys that fought for those rights—now I’m in their shoes and trying to protect them, trying to protect their health-insurance costs. I’m adamant.”

Todd works the 7 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shift, although he started out 18 years ago working 3 pm to 11 p.m.

“Our school is a community center. It’s used all the time,” he said. The middle school has a pool. It’s used constantly.

“When the kids are sick our workload increases. We have to disinfect everything,” he said, noting this year’s rampant flu and why having good custodians matters.

Kristin Ames, president of the Canton Central Teachers Association, credits the union’s use of ambassadors to speak with the local’s 120 members about the ramifications of a possible negative Supreme Court decision against unions — which so far has provided the base for achieving a 99-percent card recommitment.

Each ambassador has 10 members, and has had at least two conversations with members on this topic, said Ames, a living environment teacher.

Her local union is big on community outreach, and currently is building a tiny house to raffle off with the help of volunteer labor from TA members and students, as well as seed money from NYSUT’s The People Project. Money from the raffle will go toward scholarship and startup money to build a concession stand for the booster club.

Another Canton local, the six-member Canton Central School Secretarial Association, has had 100-percent card recommitment.

Association President Trudy Bishop, who holds a position in a special-education office in the middle school, has worked 18 years at her job. She and her colleagues work closely with teachers to input student needs and IEPs into a software program. They also help set up programs for more than 300 students who need services such as speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, or hearing.

“We all got together and handed out the cards…A union is security. It’s somebody that has our backs. Someone that’s looking out for our best interests,” she said.