“If you give me a road map, I’ll get it done.”
Those words are from Garth Merlino, a BOCES teacher from Erie 1 Professional Education Association, eager to learn on his first day at NYSUT’s Local Action Project weeklong program in Saratoga.
Merlino came to the right place to get that map. That’s exactly what NYSUT does in this program: It provides local unions with tools, direction, training and education on how to be a better local union – one that better serves members, and better connects with community. Workshops are held throughout each day.
LAP requires locals to make a three-year commitment. The team members for each local agree to spend one week each summer learning new skills. The first day was devoted solely to newcomers; returning local union teams began their work today.
“We came here with a set of questions. We’re excited,” said John Snyder who, like Merlino, teaches electrical in a Career and Technical Education program at Erie 1BOCES. ELA teacher Lisa Reidy rounded out their LAP team.
“We need to kick it up a notch,” said Donna Walters, president of the 265-member PEA. “Over the past three years, we’ve been on a mission to increase member engagement and make the union relevant.” That effort helped when it came time to have members recommit to the union by signing new union cards. “Our members were all in,” Walters said proudly.
Last summer, PEA took the initiative of ordering new union shirts and delivering them in person to each individual member’s home.
“We had conversations with them. It showed they were valued,” Walters said. On opening day, members wore their blue shirts in unison.
“As a BOCES, we have members in 25-30 buildings across Erie County. We struggle to maintain effective communication and unity,” she explained. Her team is ready to use LAP to help them build their union. Walters has already attended the NYSUT Local President’s Conference and Snyder took part in the NYSUT Leadership Institute.
Another new LAP local union is also looking for communication tools.
“We’re looking to increase member engagement; to have more active members. We’re looking for new ways for people to get involved,” said Rebecca Kollar, a building rep and newbie LAP team member for the Middle Country Teachers Association. When the local hosted two different First Book giveaways, for example, there was a huge turnout of members ready to take ownership of the event.
The team agreed that they need to learn how to better use social media and how to more efficiently contact members.
Debra Drespel, first vice president for the MCTA, said there is a wave of strong leaders on the brink of retirement, and the union realizes it needs to step up its game in preparation.
“We got comfortable. LAP says we can do better,” said Jeannine Smith, second vice president. “We need to light the flame again.”
Skylar Simeone said her father is a small business owner. When she told him she had her first teaching job, she said he unexpectedly began crying. She was surprised. “He said, ‘The fact that you have such a strong union, and benefits, is everything I wanted for you. You don’t stand alone,’” Simeone recalled.
The local contacted NYSUT and conducted a survey of its members to assess their needs. Leaders brought together people they knew would be good activists and new leaders to build their LAP team.
“They’ve internalized unionism and activism,” said Drespel, whose local has about 840 members. During the lead up to the vote last year on a possible Constitutional Convention, Drespel said the Middle Country TA developed an ambassador program with one person for every 10 members. Many individual conversations resulted, and the positive response helped tremendously when it came time to ask for a recommitment to the union by signing cards.
“We explained what was going on with Janus (Supreme Court case),” said Simeone. “A lot of people didn’t know how severe it was.”
Simeone said her father is a small business owner. When she told him she had her first teaching job, she said he unexpectedly began crying. She was surprised.
“He said, ‘The fact that you have such a strong union, and benefits, is everything I wanted for you. You don’t stand alone,’” Simeone recalled.
So, when she was invited to make a three-year commitment to LAP, she took it as a compliment.
Megan Brady, MCTA, said she wants to help strengthen the union through community involvement and by building on a positive outlook within that community.
With new hires making up about one quarter of their 113-member union, April Kackos, local president of the Tri-Valley TA in Sullivan County, is looking to LAP to help find a way to “get them in a union state of mind.”
At some of the union’s longstanding community events, Kackos said participation by members has been decreasing.
On the first day of LAP, her team began working on goal setting and creating a list of ideas.
“It’s about the whole school being the best – it’s the union, the school, the community,” said Lauren Pullen, a sixth-grade teacher.
“I was never huge in the union,” said Kimberly Patete, also a sixth-grade teacher. “But now, post-Janus, I see – I can have an impact on everybody in our school.”
LAP team member Matthew Haynes brings some experience to his team’s table: He attended the NYSUT Leadership Institute as Tri-Valley TA vice president.
Bringing in the hometown advantage to the LAP new member groups is Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Educators Association, which is also seeking “new energy,” according to President Ruth Shippee.
“We need more participation from employees,” said LAP member Chris Martino, who works in Information Technology. “Plus education — They don’t realize what they get from the union.”
“The Janus case is a wake-up call,” said Jo James, a special education teacher.
Shippee said the one-on-one conversations the union has had with members this year was revealing.
“We were working with members who had issues we didn’t know about,” she said. Questions included wanting to know more details about the local union’s budget, and about NYSUT’s budget.
Some thought dues were used to support candidates they might not agree with, Shippee explained. Members were educated about how NYSUT can only use voluntary donations, collected through VOTE-COPE, for political action. Dues money is not allotted for this.
“They believe in what we’re doing for them, in negotiations, but not all agree on politics,” she said. Shippee said it was important for her members to learn that spending on political action is separate from dues.