What Our Union Does

The prior post about the RA gives a good sense of what our union does in one sense, but there’s another way to look at “what our union does” that was also covered at the assembly. I’d like to share just a couple of those things with you.

“If she doesn’t feel well she wants mommy home with her to take care of her”
NY AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento is a regular speaker at the RA. Each year he talks about the educators in his family and expresses his great appreciation for teachers. He had something new to add this time, as this past September his wife became a dues-paying NYSUT member. He talked about going through all the aspects of her contract and noting the very tangible benefits that union membership provides and the impact it will have on their family. Not just wages and benefits, but also vacation, personal, and sick days.

“My youngest daughter Emma, she’s nine years old . . . she’s old enough but she’s still young enough that if she has a school play, if there’s something going on at school where you want your parent there, she still wants mommy there . . . if she doesn’t feel well she wants mommy home with her to take care of her, she doesn’t want us to get someone else. When we looked through that contract we realized that that particular contract, [like] every NYSUT contract for every local in the state, has a real tangible positive effect on the lives not only of those members but of their families. That’s why the members of NYSUT stayed with this Union, because of the real practical effect that those contracts and all of you have fighting for them every single day.”

“After all these years, I could actually feel the tears welling up in my eyes… but I still would do the same thing all over again today.”
At the RA, NYSUT paid tribute to Sylvia Matousek, a NYSUT pioneer who led her local – The North Syracuse Teachers Association – through an incredibly acrimonious strike in 1976. (You can watch the whole video here). The strike took place during a bitterly cold October, landed union leadership in jail, and resulted in the death of teacher Emilio Colabello, a 34 year old father of 3, and serious injuries to many others when a drunk driver fell asleep and plowed through the picket line.

What were they fighting for? Three years earlier they’d finally won class size limits, a 9% pay raise, and PLANNING PERIODS (think about that for a second). But now a new board was looking to gut their contract and undo everything. The strike lasted 10 days, but because public employee strikes are illegal, teachers were docked for 20 days pay.

The strike proved to be successful, as they got nearly everything they were fighting for, and it became a model for other locals throughout the state.

There are so many lessons we could pull from this story, and most of them come under the general heading of not taking anything for granted. For some of you this may seem like ancient history, but it really isn’t that long of a road that we’ve come, and we know there are those pushing to drive us backwards. On on that topic…

“A year ago we stood together, not just anticipating the Janus decision, but preparing for it”
The specter of Janus loomed large at the RA. It’s been almost a year since the decision came down, but the damage done to unions has been minimal – especially in New York. The vast majority of teacher locals have lost no members at all, and the ones that have have only been in single digits. We attribute this to the work we have all done together and to an overall recognition among our members that unions serve an absolutely critical function – protecting the rights, working conditions, incomes, and benefits of our members.

That said, it’s also true that the big-money groups looking to break up unions have not yet hit us with their full weight. That may be about to change.

Groups like New Choice NY have been running ads, putting up billboards, and sending canvassers door-to-door in Albany over the last few months, and the prediction is that this was a test for a state-wide roll-out this summer. This means there’s a good chance that we will start seeing messages (and maybe having people knocking on our doors) trying to convince us to abandon our union.

Are we ready? I think we are. Since you’re still reading this email, I probably don’t need to convince you of the importance of sticking together. But all of us have a roll to play in preserving our union, which sometimes includes talking to colleagues, friends, or acquaintances who may be questioning their need to stay as part of the union. In the coming weeks we’ll share some more thoughts on this, but for now the main message is all that’s above.

Go back and skim this email and notice all the things we take for granted – sick days, personal days, planning time, raises, contract negotiations that may get bad, but not brutal. These are all things that our union protects and that groups like New Choice NY want to take away from you. And even though that’s not why I put them there, the first two things mentioned above – your retirement and contractual holidays are protected by your union.

That’s why we’ll continue to work, and it’s why we’ll win.

2019 RA Summary

Last week NYSUT held it’s annual Representative Assembly, in which almost 2,000 delegates from locals across the state gather to elect officers and set our union’s agenda for the coming year.

This was an off-year election-wise (the President and other officers are up next year), so there isn’t much to report in that area.

NYSUT Delegates considered 49 resolutions, which are proposals for what actions the union will take or policies/legislation we will advocate for. Here are summaries of just a few:


Delegates overwhelmingly supported a resolution in support of advocating for “the creating of regulations to mandate full-time certified school librarians at every school library.” It also called for school librarians being “included in the Curriculum and Instruction” section in State Ed regulations, for the establishment of a Regents tasks force on librarians and school libraries, and the adoption of the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum as the statewide school library standards.

This is long overdue, and something that we support fully. It is critical that everyone involved in education policy recognize that digital technology can never replace librarians; that librarians are absolutely essential to ensuring that students become informed and users of these resources.

NYSUT Execute VP Jolene DiBrango put forth a special order of business to reinforce NYSUT’s commitment to advocating against the flawed 3-8 state tests. There was a bit of debate about the some of the specific language, but the overall message was universally accepted.

Another resolution that passed easily was calling for enforceable standards for room temperature, with a mandate that classes be cancelled or relocated if room temperature exceeds 90 degrees or goes below 60 degrees. (there is currently no regulation for maximum temperature)

 Gun Violence / Active Shooter Drills
Delegates approved a resolution that opposes any state, federal, or local laws mandating or permitting arming of public school teachers, and advocates for rules that active shooter drills only be conducted without students present and that “no weapons and/or projectiles of any kind be utilized in the training with school staff”

A couple of notes on this…

1) As with many other issues at the RA, there was a good deal of debate about this. I mention this because we have members in our unit with political beliefs across the spectrum, and some have expressed a feeling that they don’t feel their voices are heard. I want to assure you that on any issue that could be considered even remotely political, there is opportunity for all sides have their say (in fact, there is a requirement that speakers on both sides be given the chance to speak before any vote), and rest assured, this does happen.

2)  The language about “active shooter drills” does not refer to lockdown drills, but to drills with simulated shooting.

3) It seems insane that we would actually have to advocate that consultants/law enforcement officials not be allowed to shoot projectiles at teachers during drills, but this is a real thing that happens.

 Various Funding Issues
School funding is always something that we have to fight for, and there we a number of resolutions related to this. A few examples are:

*Expediting approval and disbursement of Smart Schools Bond Funds (there are currently big delays in getting these funds to schools)

*Protecting schools from TAN costs (I’d actually never heard of this before – there is a lag between the time that districts need to pay their bills and when local towns collect taxes and pay them to districts, so districts have to borrow money every year from banks, costing them a total of $13 million in interest.)  This resolution passed easily, but is unlikely to ever turn into actual legislation as banks make a lot of easy money on this.

*Payment of Foundation aid (schools in NY are currently owed $4.2 billion in aid per prior court rulings but has consistently failed to comply). This resolution called not just for lobbying but for a education program to inform NYSUT members and legislators about this issue. It’s also past easily, and is something we will continue to fight for.

*Changes to the tax cap. Without going into all the details, there was a resolution that proposed changes to how the tax cap is calculated. It did not pass, as the debate about it effectively highlighted how the unfairness of the tax cap impacts different districts differently. A change that might make it more fair for some districts would then become a huge financial burden on others, depending on how much state aid they get.


Again, this is just a sample of the issues that were debated.  For anyone who really wants to really dig into this, I will try to get a full summary from NYSUT and make it available.