Dawn Thomas knocks on the door of a modest home in the Mohawk Valley. The recent retiree and member of the Broadalbin-Perth Teachers Association is one among some five dozen NYSUT member organizers tasked with visiting other NYSUT members to talk about issues important to the union.
A man, the union member's husband, answers. Thomas asks if she can speak to his wife.
"I don't know if she wants to talk to you, she's busy," the man says.
Thomas reintroduces herself, and a female voice calls from within: "Come in! Come in!"
"She's on the couch," Thomas recalls," and she's got a baby, like a preschooler, on her lap, taking a sliver out of his foot, and a baby crawling on the floor.
"I saw her and her family, and how life is, like it is for my family … and she knows how important the union is in her life, and this whole constitutional convention thing. She knows that, even though she is taking a sliver out of the little guy's foot, she needs to make time for it. And she did.
"That's my favorite night, because that's what it should be about."
Thomas and the other organizers are part of NYSUT's Education Summer program, the start of an intensive ongoing effort to make face-to-face connections with fellow union members. They spent six weeks this summer knocking on nearly a thousand doors — each.
"These member organizers are part of a new statewide network who are taking a lead role in the campaign to defend and promote our members' rights and fight for educational justice," says NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
The union's ultimate goal, he says, is to have a one-to-one conversation with every member.
The program continues into the fall and winter with a new crop of member organizers who will talk with more NYSUT members about the value of belonging to a union and to urge them to mobilize others.
Face-to-face contact is key, says Luis Grevely, a Schenectady Federation of Teachers member. It's more effective than emails or even phone calls. Even so, it can take a lot of work to get through to people and make that important connection, says Grevely, striding, GPS-enabled phone in hand, to his next visit in the city's Mont Pleasant neighborhood. People aren't always trusting when there's a knock on the door, he says. He tries to convince them: "I'm not trying to sell you anything, I'm trying to help you! Help me, help you!"
Taking a brief break on a warm August afternoon when it seems no one is home, Gordon Kaedy, president of the Averill Park Teachers Association, says it's important for him, and for all the organizers, to make the effort to meet members, hear their concerns, talk about why the union matters and how it makes a real difference in their lives.
"We have 280 members," he says of his local. "It might take me two years to get to every member, but you have to spend that time. That's the most important part of building that relationship, so people at least know what you're doing on their behalf. They know you're working, they know you're trying."