Over the course of the two-day pre-RA conference, NYSUT local and retiree council presidents returned to a central theme: Regardless of debates over next steps, they would leave the 2015 NYSUT Representative Assembly united.
"There are a lot of good ideas here, and we should take the good ideas and build on them. But what matters most is that we leave here united," said Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Pat Puleo.
Puleo was one of several leaders speaking at a Q&A session with NYSUT's five officers that opened the pre-RA Local & Retiree Council Presidents Conference.
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee told the approximately 400 leaders she was inspired by the unprecedented activism by union members and was proud of the many coalitions being built in communities across New York state.
"The stakes are high, the battle will rage on ... but we are in it for the long run!" she said.
Presidents reported that hundreds of parents continue to speak out about the effects of high-stakes testing on their children.
"I am proud to wear my NYSUT shirt today," said first-year President Tom McMahon, Mahopac Teachers Association.
The pre-RA conference also included a jam-packed schedule of workshops and seminars.
At a workshop on organizing, NYSUT political director Melinda Person and NYSUT's regional political organizers shared tips on reaching new members, developing persuasive messages and planning ahead instead of reacting to individual crises.
Dan Kinley, director of Policy and Program Development, briefed leaders on state budget policy changes involving tenure, re-registration, APPR, receivership and 3020-a changes.
Peter House, president of Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES EA, urged NYSUT to seek APPR regulatory changes so students' Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are honored. "We're not being evaluated on IEP goals and students with disabilities are taking assessments that are totally inappropriate," House said. "An IEP is a legal document but it's been rendered meaningless."
Matt Jacobs, NYSUT regional staff director in Nassau County, told leaders that an upcoming anti-labor court case — Friedrich v. California Teachers Association — could yield an adverse decision that would determine agency fee unconstitutional.
NYSUT and its locals must confront this challenge head-on. The key, he said, is to build strong, effective locals, "building by building, member by member, constituency by constituency."
Defending earned benefits, including Social Security and public pensions, and raising awareness of the looming New York state constitutional convention vote in 2017, was the focus of a workshop for retiree leaders. Eric Kingson, co-author with Nancy Altman of the book Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It will Help Us All, dispelled the myth that Social Security is insolvent.
"Less than a penny is spent for every dollar that's paid out," said Kingson, founding co-director of Social Security Works and co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of more than 300 national and state organizations. He urged retirees to "keep blocking destructive legislative proposals, and lobbying for the expansion of Social Security."
Laura Haas, president of the Frontier Central Employees Association, shared strategies with her fellow School-Related Professional leaders to encourage members to get to know their contract, during a session on Setting the Table for Successful SRP Bargaining.
In each FCEA newsletter, Haas creates a puzzle with clues relating to the local's contract, and winners receive gift cards. She received 10 responses to the first puzzle, and 200 to the second one.
"That's 200 people who looked at the contract," she said.
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre and NYSUT General Counsel Richard Casagrande led a conversation about the state of the labor movement.
"We find ourselves with declining wages and ever-expanding income inequality," Gebre said. "We're not sitting back and watching."
CEO income is skyrocketing, Gebre noted, even as — for the first time in a generation — 90 percent of us saw our incomes go down.
"That's the opposite of the American Dream," he said, underscoring why the AFL-CIO is pushing candidates on the issue of wages.
Casagrande sounded a similar theme from a state perspective.
"Anyone who is a union leader should be proud," he said. "You're spending part of your life fighting so working people can earn an honest living and support their families. There is nothing more noble than that."