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.

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