Learn more about how you can help the union movement stay strong in the post-Janus era at www.nysut.org/fightback.
Guest Column: One year after landmark ruling, New York's unions remain strong
ANDY PALLOTTA | GUEST COLUMNIST
Updated 9:23 a.m. EDT June 21, 2019
Early in my career, I taught in a late-1800s school building that was literally crumbling around us, with flecks of toxic plaster sprinkling down on my students and me.
So I asked for help from my union, which sent an industrial hygienist to the school to assess the problem. When testing turned up asbestos, remediation work was done to ensure my students, my colleagues and I had a safe environment.
It was then that I learned an important lesson about the value of organized labor and the power of the working class: I wouldn’t win these battles on my own. It would take collective action.
I’ve been revisiting that anecdote often as June 27 approaches. On that date a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against unions in Janus v. AFSCME dealt what some of our critics said was a crushing blow to the labor movement and what others cast as a deathblow.
They were wrong.
After more than three decades as a unionist, I struggle to think of a time when hardworking men and women have been more organized and more committed to ensuring every person is entitled fair wages, quality benefits and secure retirements. Speaking for the members I represent, I am blown away by the fact that we ultimately did not lose members in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision — we gained them.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped the wealthy special interests that backed the Janus case from trying to erode our strength by pushing members to leave their unions. But what we’ve seen is an impressive show of solidarity in response.
For example, consider the Capital Region teacher who wrote to us that a so-called right-to-work group visited her home to try to convince her to “give myself a raise” by dropping her union membership. In response, she recounted how it was the union that helped her win bereavement time to grieve after a family member’s loss, despite the fact her administration initially denied her time off.
It is true, however, that attacks on unions in other states have resulted in successes for anti-union interests. For example, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that workers in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana now earn 8 percent less per hour compared to unionized workers in neighboring states.
Here in New York, labor organizers must be prudent about our reality. We are not out of the woods yet and must keep our boots on as anti-union forces continue to lob attacks at us.
But for those considering dropping their union, it’s worth remembering what we have accomplished together in this state. It was Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, who called New York City “the cradle of the American labor movement.” Since his time, we’ve become the most heavily unionized state in America, and our collective power has led to statewide policies that include a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave, and numerous collective bargaining agreements that provide some of the nation’s best labor protections.
As we look ahead to the future of organized labor, these lessons about collective action are critical. At New York State United Teachers, our power is derived from our people — the more than 600,000 of them who mobilize for what its right on the local, state and national levels.
When we rally together, we win fair contracts. When we rally together, we send a message to Albany that standing up for the working class, including our public school students, parents and employees, is the right thing to do. When we rally together, we are able to give back by helping our members confront student debt, providing them with access to professional development and fighting for them when no one else will.
It’s the same lesson I learned in that crumbling school building 30 years ago: Together, we are a force to be reckoned with, taking collective action for the collective good.
Andy Pallotta is the president of the New York State United Teachers union.