January 2017 Issue - Labor Issues
December 19, 2016

Your union, your rights: Why we fight

Author: By Richard E. Casagrande, Esq., NYSUT General Counsel
Source: NYSUT United

I've been litigating for unions and working people for nearly 43 years. I've always thought it a worthwhile fight.

Young NYSUT members (and some of our young lawyers) look like middle-schoolers to me. I worry whether they will enjoy the rights and benefits unions have provided to my generation. I worry whether in years to come they will see unions as relevant, and whether they will join the fight. I worry now more than ever.

In January, we will have a new president who is no friend of labor. We have a nominee for education secretary who is dedicated to weakening public education. We will have a U.S. Supreme Court that might eliminate fair share fees, and a Congress that might try to legislate a national "right-to-work" law.

With these challenges arrayed against us, will we fight for our union and rights? The answer lies in remembering why we fight. And, when I say "we," I don't mean NYSUT lawyers, labor relations specialists, local presidents or statewide officers. I mean all of us — especially you. Without you, there is no union, there is no we.

We fight for decent wages and affordable health care. No working person should live in poverty, or be unable to provide a decent life for one's family. We believe health care is a human right.

We fight for decent working conditions ... and workplace safety. Too many American workers are killed or injured on the job each year.

We fight for job security and workplace due process. A person who does a good job should not work in fear of arbitrary firing, without any fair chance to be heard.

We fight for retirement security. We believe social security and pension rights are earned rights, not "entitlements," and that after a lifetime of work, a person should retire with dignity and without fear of want.

We fight for public education. Education is crucial to every person's economic and social well-being, and to our nation and our communities. We believe public tax dollars should support public schools that serve all children.

We fight for collective bargaining ... because human labor is not a market commodity. Without collective bargaining, working people have no real voice as to wages, benefits or workplace safety. Collective bargaining ensures that the dignity of work is respected.

We fight for civil rights, freedom of speech ... equality before the law and economic justice. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often said union-led struggles for economic and social reform "transformed misery and despair to hope and progress" for millions of Americans. Dr. King died fighting for the Memphis Sanitation Workers Union. Their message was simple: "I am a man." A great union lawyer, Clarence Darrow, summed it up well: "With all their faults, trade-unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in man, than any other association of men."

These rights — these things for which we fight — are a precious inheritance from generations of working people who sacrificed much to pass them to us. NYSUT fights hard to preserve these rights. But, make no mistake, this is your union, and these are your rights. History teaches that a union is only as strong as the activism of its members. Without you, there is no union. Without a union, who will fight to protect these rights? Your willingness to stand with your union is the difference between preserving rights and losing rights.

So, join the fight for decent pay, for health care, for retirement security, for public schools, for collective bargaining and for civil rights. It is a worthy fight. It is a noble fight.

It is a fight only "we" can win.