Three dozen educators from across the state gathered this week in the Capital Region to study successful labor strategies and get their arms around some of today’s biggest challenges in public education.
Since 1997, the NYSUT Leadership Institute has prepared new and emerging union activists to assume greater leadership roles within their locals and the statewide union.
This year’s six-day intensive included labor history lessons, team building activities and inspirational talks from national labor leaders Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Kim Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association; and Jeffrey Grabelsky, co-director of the National Labor Leadership Institute at Cornell University.
This year’s program was striking for its air of urgency around organizing, as attacks on public education continue to grab national headlines.
Anderson kicked off the sessions Sunday evening by highlighting the important role teachers have in preserving democracy.
“If we don’t succeed, then the country doesn’t succeed,” said Anderson. “You can’t have a democracy without a well-informed citizenry.” Anderson pointed to successful efforts to steer conversations toward the national teacher shortages in the wake of the pandemic – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, K-12 schools are down 600,000 educators – and explained that as a result of that successful organizing, decision-makers are now discussing tactical solutions for the problem. “And now what you’re seeing is lots and lots of candidates and policymakers talking about ‘How are we going to do right by educators?’ How are we going to raise their salaries?’ ‘How are we going to attract more people into the most noble set of professions alive?’ ‘How are we going to solve the shortages?’”
Public schools are foundational to American life, and that was made clear during COVID-19, when school closures brought life in this country to a screeching halt, said Weingarten. She commended the assembled educators for the dedication they showed during the pandemic, and she exhorted the audience to rise above the divisiveness being propagated in some communities.
“They’re in the same race as we are between democracy and autocracy, and they have to make us bad and they have to get on the accelerator to do that,” because of how remarkably members have faced challenges throughout the pandemic, Weingarten explained.
To overcome the distrust that is increasingly being fostered, members must take their roles as community builders and uniters to heart, she continued. “Public Schools Unite Us, NYSUT’s campaign, that is an incredible antidote,” she said.
NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said the union has a long history of victories achieved through coalition-building — whether it’s been improving pensions or fighting the voucher movement. Pallotta, a graduate of NYSUT’s Leadership Institute himself, told participants they have undoubtedly forged powerful ties with fellow participants. “I’m the Class of 2002,” he said, waving a group photo and naming several current leaders who attended the institute with him.
Throughout the training, in session after session, members were encouraged to become ambassadors — not just to the union, but to the schools themselves. Engaging parents and community members in public schools will dispel misinformation and build trust.
Grabelsky discussed trends that are impacting education, including shifting modes of communication, staffing shortages and the desire to create more diverse and inclusive classrooms. As Amazon, Starbucks, and REI take steps to unionize, we are reaching an inflection point in the labor movement that should be encouraging, he said. “Today, 75 percent of young people have a positive view of unions, and they are succeeding in industries that we previously thought were impenetrable,” he said.