What do you think about when you hear the term “union work?”
Most people immediately have a vision of unions negotiating contracts that include better pay and working conditions for their members.
A sub-set will think about union members picketing or protesting an injustice -- or even going on strike -- to defend bedrock principles.
And, sure, unions like NYSUT regularly fight for better healthcare, safe working conditions and an affordable college education for all.
We raise money for victims of national tragedies, like the recent hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Yes, union work involves all of that. It’s in our DNA.
But, union work can also mean organizing an entire region’s population to come together to strengthen education and bring jobs back.
That’s exactly what is happening now in an impoverished corner of the North Country.
The People Project in Saint Lawrence County is an exciting new, union-led initiative that is expanding the definition of “union work.”
The People Project has its origins in the successful 2015 effort to stop ALCOA – the giant aluminum manufacturing company – from fleeing Massena and taking with it hundreds of good-paying union jobs.
Once the union-led coalition succeeded in keeping those ALCOA jobs in the North Country, it became apparent that there is still a lot of work to do in Saint Lawrence County.
Led by NYSUT member Erin Covell – and armed with grant money and support from NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers – the People Project is now on to Phase Two.
It has brought together local educators from all 18 St. Lawrence County school districts. They are working to build a vibrant network that focuses on community engagement; high-quality public schools; and a sustainable economy that supports everyone.
For the past year, The People Project has been working closely with community members, employers, government and not-for-profit leaders to better identify community needs – and to come up with solutions.
The coalition has already begun working to strengthen community services such as literacy and education, improve health services, start a healthy foods initiatives, and support affordable housing and mentoring programs.
The big idea is, that if children and their communities do better, this growth will better position Saint Lawrence County to attract more good jobs and spark a new cycle of economic development.
The seeds are there. Saint Lawrence County is already home to two SUNY campuses, a private college and a number of health and human services organizations.
Volunteer fire departments, members of the faith community and local business leaders have all bought in and joined the coalition.
The People Project is meeting for its first summit at SUNY Potsdam and I plan on being there.
I think it’s great that NYSUT local unions are stretching the definition of union work.
It’s good for children. It’s good for schools. It’s good for the community. And, its good for the local economy.
And, when 18 local unions are spearheading the effort, there’s no doubt the People Project will succeed.
Andy Pallotta, a former elementary teacher, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.
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