During the first NYSUT Representative Assembly since anti-union forces attempted — but failed — to use the U.S. Supreme Court to deliver a blow to the nation’s labor movement, labor leaders urged delegates to not take anything for granted and continue fighting for their economic futures and rights on the job.
“We have avoided significant drops so far (in membership) here in New York,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “But our enemies are just getting started… We’ve got to stay vigilant.”
Addressing a packed Albany Capital Center filled with nearly 1,700 NYSUT delegates, alternates and guests, Pallotta urged members to look to — and never forget — the past as they fight for the future.
“I remind you of our roots, and our founders, lest we forget where we came from and what it took us to get here,” he said. “It’s a story of sacrifice, of the blood, sweat and tears of our foremothers and forefathers… a sacrifice that enables us all to sit in the shade of this great union today.”
Pallotta pointed to past strikes — strikes that NYSUT’s newest members are perhaps too young to remember or know of — in New York City, Nyack, Orchard Park, Eastchester and one in North Syracuse led by the late Sylvia Matousek. The story of that strike — which claimed one life and resulted in the jailing of local leaders — was told in a short video to underscore for delegates the sacrifice that’s required in gaining respect and fairness on the job.
Those actions, Pallotta said, “built the foundation of this great union.”
Pointing to the recent U.S. Supreme Court Janus decision — which ruled public-sector unions could not impose mandatory dues on members — Pallotta acknowledged the last handful of years have been tough as labor worried about its future.
“But I am happy to report that the state of our union is strong,” he said. “Anti-union forces wanted to destroy us, but this challenge made us stronger. Stronger because we did the right thing. We organized. We knocked on doors. We built relationships.
“And our membership numbers are up, our members are more engaged than ever … and they’re sticking with our union.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten agreed, saying in her address to delegates that NYSUT and AFT members ultimately fended off deep, adverse Janus-related damage through education and engagement.
“NYSUT is alive and well,” she said. “At the end of the day we survived Janus and we will thrive in spite of it. We didn’t get the decision we wanted … but despite everything our enemies threw at us, our members knew what was at stake.”
Still, Pallotta warned, “we are not out of the woods.”
“The ultimate survival of public unions will depend not only on merely preventing (membership) dropouts, but on our availability to convince new employees that union membership is important.”
Pallotta also noted that strength is not only measured in membership totals, but also in member activism — another area in which the union proved its effectiveness this past year bouncing anti-public education politicians from state office and in fighting for the passage of legislation to fix the unfair teacher-evaluation system.
Still, he cautioned that there remains much to be done.
“We can’t stand still,” Pallotta said. “We need to lean into (our) challenges. We need to think long-term, beyond the latest crisis. And, we’re doing that.”
Weingarten pledged to delegates that AFT will fight this year against “disinvestment” in public education and the “demoralization” of the teaching profession. And she urged NYSUT members to demand the passage of legislation in New York to improve teaching and learning conditions, and promote and protect academic freedom.
Unions, she said, not only build power through collective bargaining, but through “building coalitions, engaging in campaigns and creating communities.”
“This is a which side are you on moment,” said Weingarten, adding that during tough times, people respond either by “agonizing or organizing.”
“We choose to organize,” she said to delegates’ applause.
Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democratic presidential candidate from Ohio, said the Trump administration’s answer to every challenge the nation faces seems to be cutting taxes for the wealthy. In addressing delegates Friday evening, he said it’s time for America’s middle class to rise up and say, “enough is enough.”
“We have to get political power back in the hands of working people,” Ryan said. “It’s not about the redistribution of wealth. It’s about the redistribution of opportunity.”