I remember Dec. 22, 2014 like it was yesterday. The Pine Valley Teachers' Association was in the second year of difficult negotiations with the school district. That day NYSUT Labor Relations Specialist Shirley Bissell, who is now retired, sent me a text: "You better call me."
Shirley was never one to alarm so I knew something was up. She had received word the agenda for that night's bargaining session had changed. The new agenda included a separation agreement for our members from the district. The proposal would give any member who voluntarily resigned $15,000. The second item was a plan to lay off 15–20 teachers at the end of the school year. The layoff could be more than 20 percent of our membership.
The timing was bad, and no one could tell us which positions would be affected. We told our membership the news the next day. It was a not so very merry Christmas.
In January, the district gave us a list of 15 positions that would be cut. The school board would vote on the reductions at their next meeting. It was time to act.
But when TA leaders outlined a firm yet respectful plan to deal with the school board, some members wanted to be more aggressive and get in the board's face. Frustrated, they began to walk out of the meeting. MaryAnn Jones, our secretary, came through in a big way, delivering an impassioned speech about the importance of being unified. The message was clear: If you go down that hall take off your union shirt because you're weakening the entire group. All of the members who were walking out returned.
MaryAnn, along with other members, had just finished NYSUT Local Action Project training — something I firmly believe helped pull the TA through. Without the LAP experience, I am not sure MaryAnn would have made that speech.
Another galvanizing moment came from one of our new members, Roger Chagnon III, who told TA members about a similar experience he had when he worked at a different district. He asked members to stay unified and to stop pointing fingers at each other. Roger's former colleagues were not able to stand together, and that led to miserable working conditions and eventually the fracturing of the teachers union.
In the end, the entire PVTA membership attended the board meeting to protest the cuts. They all wore black Pine Valley TA T-shirts (see photo above) Sarah Olson, our vice president, was able to order and distribute in lightning speed. Two local television stations provided coverage.
More than 300 parents — from a K–12 school of less than 700 students — peppered the school board with questions. They demanded to know what the district's plan was, and how it would affect their children. By meeting's end, the vote was tabled and the board later modified the layoff list. In all, nine people took the buyout, two of whom were not on the layoff list, thus saving two jobs. I also proposed a retirement incentive. Eventually the district and the TA came to an agreement that allowed two members to retire, saving two more jobs.
Only one member received a layoff notice. However, later that summer another member resigned to take an administrative position at another district and the laid-off member returned. We went on to settle our contract in the 2014–15 school year.
Ordeals like this can tear groups apart, yet through all of this we remained united. We are now faced with new adversities, such as the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the anticipated bad decision that could result.
How could we continue to build unity and make our members understand the importance of this case as well as the state's poor political climate? We needed to improve our communication.
After attending NYSUT trainings on "on-on-one conversations," we developed a communication network within our TA. The network would be similar to a phone tree, except all communication would be done face to face.
In the past, many of our emails went ignored, and we found that a lot of members had questions but didn't think them important enough to ask.
I have found that when members are unhappy the best thing to do is to engage them in conversation. Nothing is more powerful.
The executive team recruited 12 members to act as network "communicators." Each communicator was assigned four to five other members.
They were to engage the members in conversation, find out their concerns, and pass information out. Basically, they would be a conduit from the membership to the leadership and from the leadership to the membership. Valuable information would flow in both directions.
We asked our NYSUT LRS, John Lichtenthal, to provide the communicators with training. Using a draft method similar to fantasy football, communicators chose the members they wanted to work with. The first step was to start with introductory conversations and build a level of trust, based on this formula: listen 80 percent and talk 20 percent. The first conversations produced a list of concerns members had; some easily remedied, some not. I believe our members appreciated answers even if we couldn't completely solve the problem.
This project is very much a work in progress. We learn and tweak at every step. For example, we found ourselves sending instructions to our communicators via email at first. It didn't take long for us to realize it defeats the purpose of the project.
Now executive board members prepare memos and hand deliver them to the communicators with instructions. This helps keep our communicators engaged.
The project's most important goal is to bring us closer as a group, achieve greater buy-in from our members and create a paradigm shift from being a top-down organization to an organization that takes its direction from the bottom up.
With all the attacks on unions these days, the old service model of union leadership does not work. We need to get back to our roots of organizing, with one goal and one mission: the good of the group.
That is the only way we are going to turn back challenges like Friedrichs and attacks on public education. If you need an example, look no further than our current NYSUT officers. They are taking the fight to Cuomo and he is feeling it. Our communication network in Pine Valley contributes to the strength of our officers and the entire NYSUT organization.
Despite all the technology that surrounds us, nothing is more powerful than conversation and action. I am proud to be part of this effort, and proud to be working with so many dedicated educators and unionists in my local to keep our communication network working, and to keep our union strong.
Shawn Howard is president of the Pine Valley Teachers Association.