A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Stronger From the Ground Up

My last post addressed what I believe to be the confusion of many NYSUT local leaders over their support for PSA, the NYSUT staff union, in its current round of collective bargaining. I maintain that they appropriately owe their support not to PSA but to NYSUT leadership who are trying to address an existential, structural deficit.

Many local leaders are moved to answer staff calls for support and solidarity owing to their dependence on these employees for too much of the work of their locals. Over the years a service model has developed in which locals call upon their NYSUT labor relations specialist (LRS) to do what would be better done by the officers and members of the local. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame them for doing so. They have been encouraged by state leaders and staff to do so. If a problem arises, call your LRS, the implication being that you put yourself and your local at risk if you deal with the matter yourself. The problem, however, is we build no local capacity when we operate this way. Local leaders miss opportunities for hands-on learning. Dependence on “experts” yields only ever-increasing dependence. Powerful movements are not created this way. They are created by empowering people to use their own talents in furthering their cause. To the extent that they call upon experts, those calls are opportunities to learn new information and skills; they should obviate the need to make the same call in the future. Those calls build self-reliance and increase the respect of adversaries.

One of the major roles of a state union ought to be to provide the assistance necessary to make their member locals essentially self-reliant for day to day operations. Negotiations, grievances, personnel issues etc. are all thing that are ultimately more effectively done by local leaders who have been encouraged to build the reservoir of knowledge and skill necessary for these tasks. Not only would such a state union model yield better organized , significantly strengthened local unions, it would control the costs of the state union and allow more financial resources to remain locally where they could be used to further enhance local capacity. When I stepped down as the president of my local, we were sending in excess of $325,000 to NYSUT while we were prevented from implementing scores of ideas that would have enhanced our operation for lack of financial resources.

We surely need a state union, but we need one that believes and promotes the growing power and capacity of locals – one that understands that its own strength is best enhanced from the ground up. Even our smallest locals can be made more self-sufficient and thereby more effective. I don’t claim to have all of the answers as to how to bring this about, but I know that this is a discussion we should be having and aren’t. Over my years of service, I attended far too many meetings at which local leaders called for more state staff and resources. Where have those calls gotten us?

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