May - June Issue
May 08, 2014

Breaking new ground: Meet NYSUT's new leadership team

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United

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NYSUT President Karen E. Magee

nysut president karen mageeAs a labor leader for 25 years, Karen E. Magee found her role models close to home. In fact, they were fixtures at the family dinner table.

Magee's grandmother, Helen Fiorelli, was a pieceworker in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union who lost both her daughter at a young age and then her husband. "She persevered ... no matter what was stacked against her," Magee said.

Also at the dinner table was Magee's mom, who was a member of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; and her dad, a member of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association.

In April, when Magee was elected NYSUT's first woman president in the union's 42-year history, family was right there again. Her children — Caitlyn, Max and AJ — beamed at her as she addressed the Representative Assembly, and their photo became the first item to grace Magee's new office. As congratulatory calls poured in — including outreach from Gov. Cuomo and Commissioner King — Magee had that photo and her family legacy firmly in view.

"My dream was to be a labor leader, and I've been that for the last 25 years," Magee said. "I'm following what I'm passionate about. It's the philosophy: Build on what you know."

Magee sees effective leadership as a "delicate balance" between collaboration and strength. It's her belief that women — who, after all, comprise 70 percent of NYSUT's membership — draw on both qualities at work and as union leaders.

"We are fortunate in this union that we don't have as much (gender-based) economic disparity in our professions," she noted. "We have to continue to protect that right."
A former elementary and special education teacher, Magee served as president of the Harrison Association of Teachers, teacher-member on the state Teachers' Retirement System board and member of the NYSUT Board of Directors.

Longtime colleague Martin Daly, president of the New Rochelle Federation of United School Employees, said Magee's gifts were evident when they first met as participants in the inaugural NYSUT Leadership Institute. "She is positive, down to earth and hardworking," he said. "She has a great sense of humor and is very approachable."

That's a quality that will reinforce one of her goals as NYSUT president: to increase grassroots activism. "I define that as engaging people about issues that are relevant to them," Magee said.

She said listening to members and local leaders is high priority. That translates into traveling the state to engage members in every region, as well as using surveys to identify issues specific to constituent groups. For example, higher education members' concerns about edTPA — a controversial assessment for teaching candidates — are "the Common Core component of higher education," Magee said. In one of the first accomplishments of her tenure as president, NYSUT was able to secure a common-sense delay in the implementation of edTPA.

Similarly, she said, she and her team of officers will work closely with School-Related Professionals on key priorities such as salaries, continuing education and respect for the work they do.

She has been outspoken in articulating and pressing teachers' concerns with the state's APPR evaluation system which, Magee said flatly, "is broken."

The state's hyper-focus on testing, combined with budget cuts and layoffs of counselors and psychologists, is a double whammy for students at risk. "When we cut early intervention, we create a group of students without a safety net," she said. Magee said excessive and obsessive testing has to stop. What state tests measure is "a child's frustration level," she said. The time thief of testing "stops a lot of collaborative activities ... that really bring students along."

Magee's roots as a labor leader run deep. As secretary-treasurer for the 100,000-member Westchester-Putnam Central Labor Body, she worked with leaders from fire, transportation, building trades, hospitals and retail unions.

Paul Ryan, council president, said Magee recognized the differing needs as well as the common agenda of the constituent unions. She revitalized the council's political action program, bringing in candidates for office to be interviewed by council members. "She was part of a coalition of being politically active. She was the glue of that program," Ryan said.

Magee was honored by the WPCLB as the first woman to receive its Labor Award.

As president of the Harrison AT, she also broke new ground.

Harrison Superintendent Louis Wool partnered with Magee in what he called an innovative and highly evolved labor-management collaborative. They both worked hard at the relationship, he said, noting Magee is cited in the dedication of his dissertation.

"She's extremely vested in understanding the implications of what a contract or a statute will yield in terms of practice," he said. "We brought forward a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that was recognized in 2006 as 'exemplary' by the New York State School Boards Association," he said, noting that later they both opposed the state's APPR.

As a member of the state Teachers' Retirement System board, Magee was on the disability review committee, and she helped doctors understand the complex and multi-faceted responsibilities teachers hold, said TRS president Tom Lee. Her own role as fiduciary helped protect and oversee the TRS' $100 billion pension fund, which Magee calls an "economic engine" for New York.

In all her roles, education remains a constant thread. Magee recalled as a student herself, making a hot air balloon at home for a school project, constructing a sheet metal funnel to heat it over a fire. That memory of hands-on learning has lasted many years.

"My son Max wants to be a history teacher," she said. Teaching is not something you turn away from because of conditions, she believes. "It's a fire you have in you."

Magee shared how she helped a math-phobic student solve problems through words and data. The student went on to take advanced math, telling Magee, "You taught me how to think." Another student shared: "You were tough, but you were fair."

As NYSUT's new president, who is already deeply engaged in communication, advocacy and negotiations at the highest levels, "tough but fair" sounds like part of the job requirements.

Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta

executive vice president andrew pallottaNYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta is a grass-roots leader who is committed to helping members realize their political clout.

"Be the hammer, not the nail," he said about his approach to protecting union member rights.

Pallotta, who was re-elected as a NYSUT officer, has directed NYSUT's legislative and political action statewide since 2010. He initiated the NYSUT Member Action Center, a website developed in 2012 to encourage and facilitate cyber-lobbying on key state and federal legislative proposals and issues. The MAC has enrolled more than 50,000 e-activists, generated more than 500,000 actions and cultivated a growing and engaged community of activists.

Pallotta, who sees a strong connection among his faith, progressive politics and the goals of the American labor movement, has strengthened NYSUT's coalitions with other progressive organizations.

A former elementary teacher, he earned a reputation for tough advocacy while a chapter leader in the Bronx for the United Federation of Teachers. He was known for resolving contractual, educational and community concerns, and helping oust an incumbent politician who failed to stand up for schools.

A graduate of the NYSUT Leadership Institute, Pallotta is a state AFL-CIO vice president and executive council member; and an AFT vice president. He also serves on the board of directors for the Council for Unity and the Italian-American Labor Council.

Vice President Catalina Fortino

fortinoFor NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, one of the central missions of unionism is providing members with support, professional learning and opportunities for teamwork.

A nationally recognized expert in professional development, curriculum, assessments and program development, Fortino served as the United Federation of Teachers vice president for education and director of the UFT Teacher Center in New York City before her election as a NYSUT vice president.

Fortino has specialized in teacher-driven school reform for high-needs schools. She has been co-chair of the New York State Professional Standards and Practices Board for Teaching and served on numerous task forces for NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers.

Her belief in professional learning and teamwork goes back to her own entry into teaching at Queens College. She team-taught with another early childhood teacher at a Queens College Laboratory School that was built around partnering, sharing best practice and working with colleagues. "That became the basis for the rest of my career," Fortino said. "We must harness that collective knowledge and expertise within our own ranks to support our professions."

Fortino, who came to the United States from Argentina at the age of 9 as an English language learner herself, was also a teacher of bilingual early childhood special education and a bilingual educational evaluator.

Vice President Paul Pecorale

pecoraleInstead of preparing lesson plans for special education students or working on issues as the nine-year president of the Patchogue-Medford Congress of Teachers, Paul Pecorale is now working to help strengthen NYSUT from within.

What moved Pecorale from teacher and local president to statewide union officer is a desire to reinforce NYSUT as an organization that represents the voice of the average union member.

"I want people to feel they are being engaged in the dialogue," he said.

Pecorale said he got the union bug during his second year of teaching, when he was out doing informational picketing with his colleagues under an expired contract. He also benefited from a union teacher mentor through a program his local created after participating in NYSUT's Local Action Project. Since then, Pecorale has completed an emerging leaders program, the NYSUT Leadership Institute and the AFL-CIO Leadership Institute. He's served on the NYSUT Board of Directors for eight years and is active in the Long Island Federation of Labor.

"I believe in fairness, equity and doing what's right," he said. "I try my best to represent people and their needs and wants."

He will be overseeing constituent services for School-Related Professionals, health care professionals, small and rural locals, and retirees — what he calls a "microcosm of NYSUT" — and the union's health and safety and social services programs.

Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner

messnerNYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner taught health and physical education in Schoharie for 11 years. He is past president of the Schoharie Teachers Association, which graduated from the NYSUT Local Action Project in 2011. Messner's leadership and member mobilization skills were put to the test in the wake of Hurricane Irene and the devastation it wreaked on Schoharie County.

"Having been part of LAP prepared me for the flood, but it was brutal," said Messner of the massive union project that invested more than $80,000 and hundreds of volunteer manual labor hours to clean out and then insulate approximately 170 damaged homes and structures.

"What we learned from that flood was: if you help people, one on one, they are not going to forget," Messner said. Precise planning was critical so resources — money, insulation and volunteer labor — were used wisely, he said. Messner was honored with an American Federation of Teachers Everyday Hero Award in 2012 for this work.

Working on a shoestring budget in 2012, the STA produced two simple, yet powerful, 30-second pro-public education commercials. The ads reached 1.7 million households across the state after the STA shared the videos with other NYSUT locals.

A graduate of the NYSUT and AFL-CIO Leadership Institutes, Messner has served on NYSUT workgroups and task forces, and is the founding president of the Foothills Area Council of Teachers, comprising nine rural locals.