August 27, 2021

Leaders show new teachers how unions have their backs

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
Caption: The ink is still wet on this union membership card held up by educator and mentor Jennifer Justice of the Albany Public School Teachers Association. Photo provided.

In the midst of another heat wave, following days of hurricane-related rain, local union leaders across the state are meeting waves of new teachers who are learning about new jobs, new schools and the unions they can claim as their own.

Since the Janus v. AFSCME U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2018, employees in unionized workplaces can reap the benefits of being in a union without having to pay dues. Ever since, union leaders have had to demonstrate to new employees why joining the union as a dues-paying member is good for all workers.

In a virtual meeting this week, leaders of the Albany Public School Teachers Association explained to 62 new teachers what a union means — from paycheck to professional development to protection. As part of employee orientation, they educated the educators about the benefits of belonging to a local union and the statewide NYSUT.

Unionism in this country, as any activist will tell you, is what created the middle class, got health and safety laws on the books, and cracked down on child labor. It has provided workers with safer working conditions, protections, health insurance, better pay and benefits.

“I know that unions have lifted workers out of poverty and provided workers a real shot at their American dream,” said Debra Calvo McNicholas, APSTA vice president. “And I know from personal experience that women and minorities benefit from union membership due to collective bargaining and job protections as they help alleviate the tendency of many workplaces to be systematically biased. “

Calvo McNicholas explained to new members that APSTA participates in the decision-making process district-wide by occupying committee seats and chairs for health and safety, labor-management, APPR and professional development.

“We highlighted our recent efforts as a local to empower our members through new committees: Women's, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC. We strive to truly function as an amplifier for the voices of all our members,” she said. Statewide and nationally, education unions lobby for legislation to advance public school funding and provide support for teachers and students.

Jennifer Justice, APSTA treasurer, met new teachers in person the next day, gave them a hard copy of the 111-page contract and led the educators to the union web site to locate the contract online. Then she began a scavenger hunt.

“I pick 10 contract items that are the most asked about,” she said, ticking off examples: hours of work, sick time, prep periods. “I give them a scenario and they go to the contract to find the answer. They have to read it to find the answer.”

The exercise led the teachers into a better understanding of the value of their contract, and how the union advocates for them supports them. Justice then asked them to sign an enrollment card if they wanted to join the union.

“As of this morning I had every single person join,” she said.

During the last contract negotiations for the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, President Juliet Benaquisto demanded that the SFT be given more time in new teacher orientation to talk about the union. In the past, the union would get less than half an hour out of three days.

This year, the local will have two hours in next week’s orientation, Benaquisto said, during which time the 100 new teachers will be given breakfast, as well as information.

“These days my focus is on guarantee of salary schedules, health insurance benefits … and when we advocate for things like class size and planning time, it’s for them and for the students.

“There are great benefits that come with their contract, and it’s only good as long as we continue to stay a strong union,” she said.

People often have a movie version of unions as being confrontational, Benaquisto said, and she assures new members that the SFT works to have a collaborative relationship with the administration.

As the nation celebrated Women’s Equality Day this week, she pointed out that the majority of members of the SFT — and of NYSUT — are women, “so anything we do collectively advances the cause for women.” Because of unions in the schools, women have the same salary rights as men, she said.