Schoharie High School, Schoharie, N.Y.
Schoharie Teachers Association, Local 2993
Mention Martin Messner to Donna Ruland, and she immediately begins singing his praises. “I can’t say enough about Marty,” she says. “He is just a wonderful, wonderful person.”
Ruland, an AFT retiree, is one of hundreds of flood victims hit by Hurricane Irene last year in Schoharie, N.Y. Floodwaters filled her cellar and 3 feet of the first floor of her historic home; the force of the water pulled up a heavy wood fence and deposited it on the garage roof. Inside the garage, “It looked like all of our stuff had been in a huge washing machine,” and furniture in the house was tossed about as well. “We lost everything in the cellar, everything in the first floor,” she says. And she wasn’t the only one: 80 percent of the houses in Schoharie had 4 to 8 feet of water in them; dozens of families lost their homes, and every business on Main Street was destroyed.
In came Messner. Ruland, who recently retired after 32 years as a third-grade teacher in her home town, knew him as the president of her local union chapter, the Schoharie Teachers Association. Soon, she also knew him as an extraordinary individual committed to helping a community dig out from disaster.
Ruland remembers standing in the midst of the wreckage of her home when Messner announced, “We’re gonna rip out the carpets. You gotta cut the walls down, take the sheetrock.” Ruland, overwhelmed by the muck that had infiltrated everything, was relieved to have someone take charge.
Messner rallied hundreds of union brothers and sisters to volunteer to clean up not just Ruland’s home, but nearly 120 others. New York State United Teachers locals from all over the state flocked to Schoharie to pitch in; United Federation of Teachers members drove more than three hours on a bus from the city to join them. Early work included hauling soaked and ruined carpets to the curb, cutting out waterlogged drywall for disposal, and hauling damaged furniture away. Then volunteers began to insulate the homes for the winter: The 100-member local contributed $10,000 and raised another $30,000 to eventually insulate about 160 homes, churches and businesses, coordinating with 300 volunteers and 100 different organizations to get the job done. [Watch video of UFT's efforts here.]
Messner himself worked eight or nine hours a day and on weekends, coordinating efforts and toiling beside other volunteers. When school resumed, he and other volunteers went in to teach, then volunteered after class and on weekends. Quick to share any credit for community rebuilding, Messner says, “Everything we’ve done here in Schoharie has been a team effort. … It’s about helping our friends and neighbors.”
Andy Pallotta, NYSUT executive vice president, was one of the volunteers who joined Messner’s efforts, ripping out ceilings and walls and taking out destroyed furniture and rugs. “You got to actually smell the garbage,” he recalls. Of Messner, Pallotta says, “He is definitely somebody who embodies [being] part of the community; he does that and lives that.”
Messner “is just the salt of the earth, somebody who you can totally depend on and know what he says he really means,” says Pallotta. You don’t have to question his intention. He’s out there because this is what’s right.”
Messner, who teachers a full six periods of health and physical education at Schoharie High School, does not limit himself to flood repair. Putting in four or five hours on union business and volunteer projects after school, he also leads political action efforts. One of the most unique is an ad campaign to combat the attacks on New York state public education. Featuring real students standing up for the good education they get from teachers in their public schools, the ads aired in 10 media markets to 1.6 million households, and were supported by contributions from locals as far away as California.
Schoharie Teachers Association members, with Messner in the lead, are also frequent participants in rallies for education and teachers in Albany, New York City and Washington, D.C., and they’ve done their share reaching out to politicians to urge them to support the best policies for their students and schools.
Messner also founded the Foothills Area Council of Teachers, a consortium of nine regional NYSUT chapters that boast more than 1,235 members who help boost the voice of the union. Last year, they sponsored the Schoharie Valley Teachers 5K Run, which drew 250 participants and raised $3,000 for needy children.
In fact, community-oriented projects seem to be Messner’s specialty. Among local union-led activities are the Main Street Halloween parade; community barbeques to raise scholarship funds; and contributions (in dollars and volunteer hours) to the regional food bank, breast cancer research and town beautification. Members have sponsored the Little League and hosted a golf tournament. “The union is an integral part of the community,” says Messner.
And the union is an indelible part of his own life: Messner not only wears union T-shirts, pins and stickers, he has a union tattoo—“Union Validis,” Latin for “Union Strong”—on his shoulder. It has to do with a promise he made his members, encouraging their participation in union activity. Now, that’s solidarity.