“Union” Is Not A Four-Letter Word
Labor in the United States faces a great challenge in this 21st century. During the AFL-CIO annual convention in July, three of the largest affiliates walked away from the parent union even after intensive talks.
CSA is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO through our national union, the American Federation of School Administrators, which has a seat on the Executive Council. Events like this happen when there is discord and a sense of powerlessness among members. Organizations that are split asunder have to respond to the challenges or become increasingly irrelevant. We remain loyal to the idea that together we stand, divided we fall.
While a teacher, I walked a picket line in the Bronx. Although some argued that, as professionals, we should not belong to a union, many of us disagreed. But even I did not realize how important a union was for me as an individual until I became a supervisor. Back then, interim acting supervisors had no representation. The UFT would not defend us. We did not belong to the CSA. So, a small but vocal group spearheaded a legal action. It was not easy to get others to come on board. They didn’t want to be identified with us for fear of losing their jobs!
Ultimately, we prevailed. We won the right to be appointed to our positions and belong to CSA. Management was forced to treat us with respect. We knew our rights and the rights of other union members even though we may not always have liked abiding by their contracts.
Of course, back then “union” was not a four-letter word—at least not here in NYC, and no mayor dared to question CSA’s, or any union’s, right to exist. Yes, tension existed but as union members we sought out each other for advice and unconditional support especially during tough times. We did not sacrifice one supervisor for another. We were a union family.
And I say we are still a union family although some have not yet found their way home; eventually they will. Some I believe are simply too overwhelmed to reach out. Others do not yet understand the value of their contract and rights therein; still others, unfortunately, learn of them too late. With an anti-union mayor and an anti-union chancellor, it’s tough to stand up and be counted.
In the early days of unionism, workers struggled for the right to organize. They lost their jobs, they were blacklisted, they were beaten, jailed and, yes, killed because they believed in their cause.
I imagine they would be appalled if they could see how we seem to have lost our courage. As we try to rebuild the national labor movement, remember: As much as our enemies want you to believe it, “union” isn’t a dirty word. When you hear attacks on labor, remind the speaker of what it might be like to live in a society without child labor laws, overtime pay, minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, the 8-hour workday, annual vacation, workmen’s compensation, pensions, injury protection and weekends. Organized labor accomplished these things and many other provisions we take for granted.
But if labor is to thrive, unions can no longer ignore other union’s problems. Individual members can not afford to say, “Well, I’m a member but only because I have to be.” We must work together at the local level as well as the national level. It is time for the national labor movement to encourage a strong, dedicated, energetic membership that focuses on the global view as well as on each and every one of us—leadership with the skills to motivate us to become a unified force to be reckoned with once again.#