June 26, 2017

New Labor-Religion director champions a bold agenda

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Comunications
emily mcneill
Caption: ‘I really think we’re at a turning point at the state, national and international levels,” McNeill said. “It’s increasingly clear the status quo isn’t working.” Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Rev. Emily McNeill has been named the new director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, following several years of warming up in the bullpen by organizing justice campaigns.

She faces a wall of resistance from a national leadership that favors the rich in actions that are harming public education, the poor, health insurance availability, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, environmental protections and more.

But McNeill is young, calm, schooled and fueled.

"I really think we’re at a turning point at the state, national and international levels,” McNeill said. “It’s increasingly clear the status quo isn’t working.”

McNeill is doing more than peering over that wall. She’s laying a foundation for a long-term sustained approach to building awareness, education and action, including linking up with the new Truth Commission on Poverty in New York State and the national movement as well.

She has every reason to seek bold, communal action. Perennially, New York has the highest income inequality in the nation and, while Wall Street flourishes, profit margins often come at the expense of the worker and consumer.

“The cost of the free market succeeding for a few is that workers’ rights are diminished,” said McNeill, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “The moral question is: How much is enough? What is the moral responsibility of a corporation?”

She does not believe that corporations should be trusted to provide what they should be doing morally, such as paying a living wage, health care and a dignified retirement. The solutions need to addressed through a democratic process, McNeill said, which would mean getting laws enacted to support better wages and health benefits — such as a single-payer health care system that would allow access to health care regardless of an employer; or a guaranteed basic income.

How to get leaders and lawmakers to listen? A social movement is needed. And that’s where Truth Commission on Poverty comes in, a national movement to unite the poor led by Rev. William Barber.

“The main pillars of TPC are fundamentally grounded in what we stand for as an organization, and for each and every one of us as individuals,” said Paul Pecorale, NYSUT second vice president, and co-chair of the LRC.. “There are significant challenges ahead, and I’m extremely excited about the opportunities that Emily will bring to this position.”

“The people are a powerful force,” said McNeill. Working together can change the course of the country. At the first New York Truth Commission public event, held recently in Cuba, she said there were single parents, former prison inmates, elderly and working people in fear of losing their health care. The next events are July 13 in Schenectady and Sept. 12 on Long Island. (see below for details).

“The first step is to get people to believe they have these rights. It’s getting them to recognize we don’t live in a time of scarcity,” she said. “This could be so much different. It’s new in human history that everyone can have enough.”

Starting in May 2018, McNeill said there would be coordinated actions in at least 25 states, dispersed across the country, looking at state politics and taking over state legislatures.

Mother’s Day 2018 and Juneteenth 2018 will see also “massive action to change the national conservation,” she said.

McNeill referenced a United Way ALICE Project Report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), which uses new standardized measurement to portray financial insecurity, to reveal that 44 percent of New Yorkers earn less than the cost of living in their area.

As many educators know, child poverty has reached a crisis level, particularly in upstate New York, where more than half of children in Rochester and Buffalo and more than 40 percent of children in Binghamton, Utica, Syracuse, Schenectady, Troy and Niagara Falls, are poor. These statistics are from the Fiscal Policy Institute 2017 budget briefing, McNeill reports.

Her work with the Labor-Religion Coalition also connects the organization with the Campaign for New York Health and the Green Light Campaign.

Prior to being named director, she was acting director and before that, an organizer. She succeeds Sara Niccoli as director. As lead organizer for the coalition for LRC, McNeill sought to identify and cultivate leaders who could then work with new leaders themselves. Her job was also to get people to understand the value of campaign and the movement that is being built.

The educational and work experience background that prepared McNeill for this new role include earning her Masters in Divinity from the Union Theological Seminary and a BA in journalism from Ithaca College. While in seminary in New York City, she was a fellow with the Kairos Center, a network of religious and grassroots leaders striving to end poverty. She has served as pastor of the Parkland United Methodist Church in Tacoma, WA, and with the United Methodist Kairos Response, advocating for justice and human rights in Israel/Palestine.

McNeill said her work is deeper than mobilizing.

“It’s understanding what we face now and how to make it different,” said McNeill, who was also happy to report that she was married to Emily Otto the same week she became director. She is ready for lifelong commitments in both her personal and professional life.

New York events:

  • Capital Region Truth Commission, July 13, IUE-CWA Local 301 Hall, 336 Broadway, Schenectady, NY
  • Long Island Truth Commission, September 12, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish Hall, Wyandanch, NY
  • Regional Poor People's Campaign Revival, October 16-18, Binghamton, NY: The findings of the statewide truth commission will be presented as part of this statewide gathering with Rev. Dr. William Barber and the New Poor People's Campaign.