May - June Issue
May 06, 2014

Magee: We're a member-driven union on the march

Author: Karen E. Magee
Source: NYSUT United
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

My grandmother, Helen, was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union — and she showed me by example that a woman's place is in her union. She'd be proud to know that her granddaughter is the first woman to be elected president of NYSUT. And I'm sure she'd share my fondness for this quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: "Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until you put them in hot water."

"Hot water" is an understatement when it comes to the pressures and outside forces arrayed against the labor movement these days. This is a challenging time for everyone who works in public service. Budgets are tight and there's constant pressure to do more with less. Our children's joy in learning is being crowded out by test prep and test anxiety. Public colleges have been on a starvation diet, tax caps burden our schools and layoffs threaten health care.

This is just a short list of our challenges. What's important is how we're going to tackle them. I can tell you: We are on the march.

One of the first questions reporters asked me after our statewide election was: Why did NYSUT members vote for change? I think it boils down to this: Members all across the state wanted a more aggressive union — a union of action dedicated to its members' priorities. That is a clear mandate for me and my fellow officers.

In the first 30 days since we took office, we've simultaneously opened up channels of communication and turned up the heat. Whenever and wherever possible, we are forcefully and specifically communicating the impact harmful policies are having on our members and our communities, pushing for the positive changes needed and taking action to compel them. We will defend public education and public service. Period!

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Education Commissioner John King Jr. have moved to re-establish communications with NYSUT. One of my first orders of business was to deliver the union's vote of "no confidence" to the commissioner and to let the governor know exactly where our members stand on his education policies. These were not happy conversations, but they were necessary. For example — can I be blunt? — New York's teacher evaluation system is broken. That's not news to you, I know — but that is the unvarnished message I am communicating to the governor, the state education commissioner and the media on your behalf.

Yes, we are on the march. When we heard that the anti-union Wall Street crowd was planning a retreat in Lake Placid, we put out the call to "picket in the pines." NYSUT activists converged by the busloads in Lake Placid to drown out the Wall Street hedge fund managers as they planned more of their top down "reforms."

It was 39 degrees and pouring rain, but that couldn't dampen the enthusiasm that had #picketinthepines trending on Twitter. We donned slickers, pulled out umbrellas and kept marching. Parents joined us; AFT President Randi Weingarten joined us and passing drivers honked their support for our message: "Public education is not for sale!"

We are on the march in higher education. NYSUT, in unison with United University Professions and the Professional Staff Congress, just days ago succeeded in convincing Commissioner King to rethink the rush to impose edTPA as a condition of teacher certification. This big win is an encouraging sign of the progress that's possible.

And, of course, we are on the march on behalf of public schools. In the near future we will launch a statewide radio campaign to urge "yes" votes May 20 on school budgets and on the overrides necessary to counter the undemocratic tax cap.

Underpinning our collective action is a commitment to ensure NYSUT is a union driven first and foremost by members. Your collective wisdom and experience will shape the future of NYSUT.

Here is my guiding principle as NYSUT's new president:

When we march together, we will be the collective voice that can't be ignored.