NYSUT leaders wrapped up the 2021 Representative Assembly with a powerful sense of hope, purpose and union pride — a feeling that together, we can get through anything.
Though the pandemic forced the statewide union to conduct its annual convention in a remote format, NYSUT leaders and a who’s who of speakers recalled a year that offered tremendous challenges, yet brought people together like never before.
“The toll on many of you has been great,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango. “Whether that toll was personal or professional, we know it has weighed heavy upon your shoulders. But you’ve risen to each challenge this pandemic and this year of racial reckoning has thrown your way.”
She said NYSUT members have served as first responders in a time of crisis. “You are the reason our students will do more than just survive this pandemic,” she said. “As their first responders, you have given them hope. You’ve taught them how to resist in the face of racism, sexism and hatred. You’ve taught them resiliency, and you’ve shown communities that schools and campuses are more than just buildings. They are lifelines.”
DiBrango said NYSUT would continue to advocate for a safe return to in-person learning because we all know that a remote option will never replace the power of in-person teaching and learning. “That personal connection is critical,” she said. “We must get back to research-based best practices like culturally responsive pedagogy, and we need to end practices that don’t make sense like concurrent teaching. We will be here fighting for the respect you deserve as professionals and as human beings.”
NYSUT Second Vice President Ron Gross, who was elected to his statewide office at the height of the pandemic, recalled a year of inspiration overseeing NYSUT’s program services department, which includes health and safety, social services, retirees and constituency groups.
“The last 14 months have been quite extra ordinary. But we as a union are even more extraordinary,” Gross said. “This pandemic has opened all of our eyes to see what can be done to prevent illnesses and injuries to our students and staff. We must not recede once this dreaded scourge is over.
“As a history teacher, I have used these words many times and they seem very appropriate today more than ever,” Gross said. “‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Let’s be sure to heed these words and build structures within our locals that will continue to advocate for safe and healthy workplaces for ourselves and for the people we serve.”
A former trustee on the state Teachers’ Retirement System Board, Gross said he has a special place in his heart for retirees. As NYSUT celebrates the 30th anniversary of its retiree councils, Gross unveiled a new NYSUT Legacy Fund program that will encourage any member, local union, council or chapter to make a donation in honor of the thousands of labor activists who built our union.
NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham, who oversees the union’s social justice efforts, was proud to report on the great success of the union’s “Many Threads, One Fabric” initiative to promote racial and social justice.
“The sessions have attracted thousands of union members from around the nation and the very positive feedback seems to indicate that there is a high level of interest in social justice related offerings,” Abraham said. “We are also making great progress in getting social justice committees established and active in every region of the state.”
At a time of great need, Abraham noted a number of new and expanded Member Benefits programs, including programs to help members with student debt and financial planning; an identity theft workshop and a new webinar focused on building strategies for resilience and identifying ways to prioritize well-being.
In his role as treasurer, Abraham was proud to say NYSUT is marking its sixth straight year where state dues have remained flat for all salary banks, with growth to 675,000 members statewide.
Guest speakers bring greetings, thanks
Throughout Saturday’s session, delegates heard from a wide range of national and state leaders.
NEA President Becky Pringle shared greetings and gratitude for NYSUT members on video, saying, “you are leading the way with vision and commitment and determination.” She said no state has been hit harder than New York, “yet you have been there for our students every day, even while caring for your own families.”
Pringle thanked NYSUT members for sharing the national movement toward “a racially and socially just and equitable system that actually prepares every student, not one, not some, but every student in a diverse and interdependent world.”
Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO, told delegates, “What you have done, every single one of you, during this year has been an inspiration. … Do not let anyone tell you that you or your union is anything less than heroic.”
Cilento recognized the loss of workers to COVID-19 illness, and promised to continue to fight for workers who got sick or lost their jobs, and for the families of those who died.
Congratulating the union on its victories in the Legislature this spring, he said, “This past budget cycle has been the most successful for any one particular union I’ve seen.
It’s a testament to each and every one of you individually and collectively fighting for what we believe in."
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, always a popular guest at NYSUT events, proclaimed, “NYSUT is the gold standard for what a union is all about.” Across so many job titles and work settings, he said, “You all have one thing in common: You chose public service and public education for your calling. You make a difference for New York families, and you stand as one.”
DiNapoli noted that after a tough year, the state is “edging its way back,” with improving employment numbers, state tax revenue and federal stimulus. “No doubt your advocacy continues to be key,” he said.
State Attorney General Letitia James commended NYSUT members for helping communities come through the chaos and confusion of the past year. “You helped shape, nurture and care for our most precious commodity, our children,” she said.
“We must continue to work together to support educational equity in light of the pandemic,” she said, adding, “you are the real heroes and sheroes.”
In a year where education and health care won a historic state budget package and federal relief aid, delegates heard from several state and federal representatives.
“The Senate majority applauds your hard work,” said state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. NYSUT helped win the largest ever boost in Foundation Aid this year, and the commitment to fully fund the Foundation Aid formula over the next three years and to invest in higher education “like never before,” she said.
“NYSUT’s support was instrumental in securing these victories.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie concurred, telling delegates, “Your hard work and dedication to New York’s students was nothing short of extraordinary.”
Senate Education Chair Shelley Mayer thanked delegates “for a great victory on this year’s budget, a real partnership of advocacy and determination by your members and leadership. It’s my pleasure to celebrate what you’ve achieved and what we’ve achieved this year,” she said.
Senator John Liu, who chairs the committee on New York City education, thanked NYSUT members for “your incredible efforts on behalf of school children throughout the state. … It’s not just about the money. It’s about what you do day in and day out.”
Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, chair of the education committee, was a member of NYSUT and the UFT for 35 years. He applauded the efforts of all members during this trying time. “We have spent a terrible year in education, every thing was uncertain, but you rose to the occasion. I go around the state bragging about what you’ve done.” Benedetto also pledged to continue working on legislation to suspend the state’s Annual Professional Performance Review system, saying educators should be held harmless and not judged on “outdated modes of evaluation” during this pandemic year.
Of all the state representatives, a highlight was hearing from state Sen. John Mannion, the former West Genesee TA president and longtime science teacher who was elected last year.
President Pallotta asked Mannion which job is harder: teacher, local president, or state senator?
“It’s great, Andy,” Mannion said. “Like being in the classroom or president of the union, it takes a full commitment.” But, he said, there’s nothing like the pressure to prepare and perform in the classroom.
“That anxiety on Sunday night, knowing you have to be ready Monday morning, we can all relate to that, I don’t have that anymore. … There is no rush like there is from working in the classroom with kids.”
Mannion is a product of NYSUT’s Pipeline Project, which prepares members to run for local elected offices. It works! “You feel the support behind you, and it makes it easy to run,” he said.
“He’s not just a senator from Syracuse,” Pallotta said. “He’s our senator.”
Pallotta took the opportunity to put in a big plug for VOTE-COPE, NYSUT’s voluntary political action fund. Even in this pandemic year, donations totaled nearly $12 million.
Federal representatives thanked members for their grit and grace throughout the tumultuous year — and pledged continued support.
“As we work to restore in-person learning, we must make safety our watch word,” said U.S. Representative Paul Tonko. He said the federal rescue money must be delivered with expediency to help schools buy PPE, offer coronavirus testing, repair ventilation systems and hire more staff to care for students’ health and well-being. “Helping children recover will be an enormous challenge,” Tonko said. “Respecting and uplifting our nation’s educators is the key to transitioning to a better and more equitable America.”
Congressman Antonio Delgado said the stimulus funding “is remarkable, but it is not enough. Even before COVID-19, educators were undervalued and education underprioritized.” He said now, we must “truly prioritize our public schools and get behind our educators.
“Through it all, you remained focused on delivering quality education to our children,” Delgado said. “I’m in awe of your grit, your creativity and your empathy. But New York educators need more than praise. You need resources. You need support. You need funding.”
Union honors members
NYSUT delegates paid tribute to the 2020 New York State Teacher of the Year Rachel Murat, a social studies teacher at Maine-Endwell High School and 2021 NYS Teacher of the Year Jennifer Wolfe, a social studies teacher at Oceanside High School.
The convention also presented “Not for Ourselves Alone:” The Sandy Feldman Outstanding Leadership Award to two longtime union leaders: Catalina Fortino and Florence McCue. Fortino, a former NYSUT first vice president, served as a United Federation Teachers vice president and longtime director of the UFT Teacher Center. In a career going back five decades, Florence McCue served the Yonkers Federation of Teachers in numerous positions and continues her activism as a retiree at-large director on the NYSUT Board.
The RA also honored a number of outstanding members with video presentations, including Health Care Member of the Year Nancy Barth Miller; School-Related Professional Members of the Year Dorothy Kamps and Cheryl Rockhill; Higher Education Members of the Year Barbara Bowen, Jamie Dangler and Michael Fabricant; and Retiree Members of the Year Donald Nobles and Deb Peterson.
In convention business, delegates approved the 2022 NYSUT Legislative Program and a motion to recommend endorsement of Eric Iberger, president of the Bayport-Blue Point TA, as a candidate for the state Teachers’ Retirement System Board. Iberger was appointed as a teacher-member of the TRS Board in February to fill the remainder of the term vacated by NYSUT Second Vice President Ron Gross.