Two years ago, with NYSUT’s failure to oppose Governor Cuomo serving as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” PJSTA members followed the lead of their officers and stopped contributing to VOTE-COPE, the statewide union’s voluntary political action fund. PJSTA President Beth Dimino has been vocal in describing her reasons for not contributing and this has drawn the ire of many Unity Caucus loyalists. You’ll surely recall that last year Unity (the controlling caucus within NYSUT) used it’s blog to launch a personal attack at Dimino, labeling her “anti-union” among other things.
So this year NYSUT decided it’d try to step around Dimino in an attempt to solicit VOTE-COPE contributions from the PJSTA membership by sending out a form letter to each of our members asking for us to give to VOTE-COPE this year. I want to be clear here… I do not have a problem with the leadership stepping around Ms. Dimino to approach our members about this. The PJSTA membership made a strong statement about their confidence in NYSUT’s political action work when our members made their decisions to reduce their VOTE-COPE contributions to $0. I would expect that to catch the attention of NYSUT leadership and I would expect them to want to contact those members about their decision.
The problem I have with their tactic comes in their chosen form of communication. Nearly two full years after reducing our contributions, leadership’s response was to send each of our members a form letter. There was no attempt to engage our members in discussion about our decision. No reaching out to gauge our feelings on our statewide union, or to ask how they can better represent us. No discussions about the broken union structures that lead to disengaged members. No explanations for why they have generously donated to ed deformers like Andrew Cuomo and John Flanagan. Just a simple form letter asking us to give them more money. To be frank I found it insulting. The idea that a form letter with all the usual rhetoric was going to suddenly sway me was simply astounding.
After reflecting on it, I think this incident really highlights some of the major problems with our statewide union. Virtually all contact I have ever had with NYSUT is one-way communication where messages from the top are relayed down to me. There is nearly zero back and forth. No chance to engage our leaders in discussion about the state of our union. No visits from the NYSUT officers to our schools to ask questions or to simply listen. Sending form letters to request greater VOTE-COPE contributions is the very essence of top down unionism. It’s ineffective, expensive, and does nothing to serve our members.
The fact that this happens is the result of of a broken union structure. Andy Pallotta’s PAC work has resulted in teachers being held “accountable” via junk science through poorly constructed teacher evaluations over the past several years. However there is no accountability for Andy Pallotta. I am not sure whether or not STCaucus plans to run a slate in the coming NYSUT elections, but it doesn’t really matter. Pallotta will run again for a NYSUT officer position again this spring and he will win. This will likely be the case for a few of our other officers as well. They are in a situation where they can’t lose because they will have the endorsement of the Unity Caucus. In NYSUT’s rigged system of democracy the only thing that matters is the Unity endorsement. The will of the members won’t matter. The PJSTA membership’s VOTE-COPE reduction, which essentially amounted to a vote of no confidence in our leadership, won’t even be a blip on the radar when it comes to the election.
This is the type of stuff that turns people off to unions. This is why it gets easy to become disengaged and apathetic. I’ve had a lot of discussions about this sort of scenario with members across the state. I’ll close with the gist of what I put in an email earlier today to one of those members about the only way I see to go forward and the only way that I can see transforming our union…
I think the way forward is to take our focus off of resolutions, leadership positions, and the NYSUT bureaucracy and focus solely on engaging and organizing the rank and file. I think an engaged and active R&F will ultimately have a greater impact on the state’s public ed landscape than having a great leader at the top working within the same structure that has lead to a disengaged and apathetic membership to begin with. By grassroots organizing you can ultimately increase your leadership capacity across the state and begin to cultivate local leaders who will challenge for leadership and delegate positions in areas that have traditionally been Unity strongholds (Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers, UUP, PSC, etc.). That is how you ultimately might win leadership positions within NYSUT. More importantly, in the process, you will have organically grown an engaged, fighting union who is more powerful than we have ever knowN it to be. It is a long slog for sure, with a tremendous number of obstacles in the way, and it requires the sort of person-to-person organizing that is neither glamorous or rapid in nature, but I believe it is the only way forward for us.