Special education teacher Lia Council, a member of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers, recently joined NYSUT's Communications Ambassadors, a grassroots network of members committed to helping spread the union's message.
1. What was the moment the union meant something to you?
My first year teaching seventh grade special education was basically uneventful; my administrators treated me fairly and I was able to teach my students — life was good.
One day over lunch with several teachers I learned that the job protections and working conditions I had come to take for granted had not always been in place. They were the direct result of the hard work, sacrifice and sweat of many who had come before me.
I learned that my union was the collective voice that represented and spoke for every teacher in the district, which made me feel comfortable as a nontenured teacher. I discovered that any concerns I might have could be addressed without me being singled out. Without knowing it, these teachers were the impetus for my active participation.
Several years later, I served as the union building representative while working under an extremely tyrannical administrator. We lost many wonderful educators, who decided to teach elsewhere, rather than stay and be intimidated or harassed by her. She also despised the teachers union. She told me I could not hold monthly union meetings in the school and repeatedly threatened to have me arrested if I did.
I contacted my union president for direction. Her response was: "You're allowed to hold the meeting, so wear your best outfit and have your makeup on. I'll be there with you. We may get arrested but we'll look good." (Editor's note: The meeting was legal and held without incident.)
2. How does your union make your life better?
Personally, my union has given me a sense of peace and security. I work in a field I love; I earn a decent salary; I have good benefits and I will be able to take care of myself when I retire.
Professionally, my union makes it easier for me to support my students. We ask to be a part of all conversations that dictate what we do in the classroom.
We fight for meaningful assessments that are diagnostic and will allow us to use the results to drive our instruction.
We focus on class size, health and safety, and other environmental issues that can affect how our students perform in the classroom.
3. What makes you most proud of being in a union?
What makes me so proud of my union membership and participation is the fact that we are the voice of those who are so often not heard, the presence of those who are so often not seen, the heart and soul of America and the hope of every future generation.
I am able to teach, contribute to my family and take care of my own children because my union fought for a defined workday, fair wages and decent health care benefits. I have the flexibility to utilize my abilities to teach the required curricula to my students in ways I find appropriate, because of my academic freedom.
4. Let's say a neighbor says unions are bad for our country. What would you tell her?
I would simply say that it's the perception of unions that is the bad news. I would ask: What is so bad about being a part of a group that is concerned with dealing with social justice issues, income equality, favorable working conditions, and ensuring protections for workers?
5. What motivated you to become a Communications Ambassador?
To quote Noam Chomsky, "Labor unions are the leading force for democratization and progress." Unions have been under attack for years. Taking away the rights of workers weakens our democracy and undermines our progress. I can't sit idly by and watch this unfold. I have a voice and I want to use it to further the cause of democracy and progress.