My Union IS My Business
Recently somebody from NYSUT was kind enough to recommend that I share questions and concerns that I had been tweeting about, with the NYSUT officers, with the idea that answers from them might comfort me and perhaps quell the negative feelings I have had about our parent union. So on Friday I sat down and wrote out the following questions…
1. What are our strategies for deep organizing around having the Ed Transformation Act repealed?
2. In light of the increasingly stronger and successful actions taken by teachers not only nationally but globally, what are NYSUT’s plans for escalating statewide acts of civil disobedience and what is the plan to organize for actions of that magnitude?
3. What are the major cost cutting efforts underway in preparation of Friedrichs?… Will metro funding be reduced? Will it be proposed that we reduce the number of officers? What percentage of a pay cut can we expect the officers and board of directors to take? Will staff be cut? How will field services be impacted? What lines of communication are you opening with the rank and file to be sure that they have say in regards to what expenses are cut?4. What is NYSUT doing to move from a top down, business unionism model to a union that is driven by it’s membership?
5. What suggestions does our leadership suggest for creating a more democratic union that is more representative of the rank and file’s voice?6. How does a rank and file member go about seeing how VOTE-COPE funds have been spent?
To her credit, NYSUT President Karen Magee was quick to get back to me. Here were her answers…
Thanks for writing. While we are always interested in engaging our members in the substantive issues that you raise in your email, I’m sure you also understand from your position as a union officer that much of what you raise here is subject to high-level negotiations. In any negotiating scenario, it’s imperative for the officers to let the members know that they are fighting on their behalf, as we have done, but just as crucial that the ebb and flow of the actual negotiations remain at the bargaining table.The questions you raise in your third bullet point, in particular, are topics that are the purview of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors, and certainly not topics of general discussion.I flatly reject the premise of your fourth and fifth questions, in which you suggest that NYSUT is neither “driven by it’s [sic] membership,” nor “representative of the rank and file’s voice.”I’m confused by your question about VOTE-COPE funds; a check of our records indicate that you are not a contributor to VOTE-COPE, so I’m not sure about the nature of your concern. Should you wish to see how VOTE-COPE contributions are being used, you can seek an appointment with Executive Vice President Pallotta to discuss.Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any further questions.
Ms. Magee’s response, unfortunately, was exactly what I expected. In essence what I was told was, “We are member driven and representative of the rank and file’s voice because I say we are. Also none of what we do is any of your damn business… and if you want to know how we spend VOTE-COPE money then you can come up to Albany!”
I am not sure why organizing strategies to repeal the Ed Transformation Act of 2015 would be considered “subject to high-level negotiations” at this point in time. We are well into budget season and there has been no apparent strategy to repeal the act, likely because NYSUT is choosing not to advocate for the repeal of the single most damaging piece of legislation that New York teachers have seen. Unfortunately Ms. Magee’s assurance that the officers are fighting on my behalf does little to instill confidence in me.
I find her response to be equally unacceptable when it comes to my questions regarding potential cost cutting efforts. There is a very good possibility that the ruling on the Friedrichs case will do tremendous financial damage to the union. As a result one would think that members had the right to know what cost cutting measures are being submitted. At the very least you’d believe that the rank and file’s input would, in some way, be encouraged as part of the process to develop a budget that makes necessary cuts. The problem is that the officers might not hear what they want to if they communicated with members over those issues.
It is important to remember that at last year’s NYSUT RA, Unity Caucus lead the fight to add an additional officer position. It’s also important to know that each NYSUT officer has a salary in the $250,000-$300,000 range with benefit packages that make the price tag soar even further. You’ll want to recall the current officers voted themselves a 2% raise only months after their election. Those are important considerations when it comes to where cost cutting measures should start.
At every NYSUT event I have attended I have gotten some sort of NYSUT tote bag. Within days those bags typically ended up in the garbage or buried in the back of a closet. Typically filling those bags have been materials printed on thick, glossy paper that I may have casually scanned before they ended up in the garbage or buried in the back of the aforementioned closet. My point is that there are many places to shave considerable money off of before valued field services are impacted. I believe the leadership has an obligation to engage the membership in discussion about what we view as the most important uses of our dues money.
As I have shared on this blog before, at one time I gave about $200 per year to VOTE-COPE. The decision not to oppose Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic Primary when a worthy opponent in Zephyr Teachout was running was the final straw for me. After that I reduce my VOTE-COPE contribution to $0. In the year and a half since that time I have listened to NYSUT operatives stress time and again the need for increased VOTE-COPE contributions. Were I ever to reconsider my decision not to contribute, you can bet I’d want to see how that money is being spent. I don’t think that is an unreasonable expectation at all. What I did find unreasonable, was Magee’s “confusion” over my question and her suggestion of having to seek an appointment with Andy Pallotta if I wanted that information. Mind you, Mr. Pallotta’s office is at NYSUT headquarters in Albany.
All of this brings me to my biggest point. Ms. Magee stated, “I flatly reject the premise of your fourth and fifth questions, in which you suggest that NYSUT is neither ‘driven by it’s [sic] membership,’ nor ‘representative of the rank and file’s voice.'” This statement conflicts with nearly every aspect of the rest of her message. Other than my final question, which she answered with an unreasonable suggestion, she basically refused to answer any of my questions. To me, the refusal to answer questions or engage membership about these important issues are the very essence of top-down unionism. The decision not to organize around the repealing of the Ed Transformation Act is the very opposite of representing the voice of the rank and file, whose careers and students are being wrecked by the legislation.
It is still stunning to me that this is the sort of response we get from the union, despite the pending Friedrichs decision. As long as there is an opportunity to be a part of a union, I will always choose to do that. I firmly believe that belonging to an ineffective union is better than belonging to no union. At the very least it gives you a structure to work within to bring change. However, I know that there will be many who don’t opt to remain a part of NYSUT. When that happens the union only has to look at the, “It’s none of your business how we operate the union” sort of mentality that has pervaded it for far too long.