April 2011 Issue
March 20, 2011

Our rights in the crosshairs

Author: NYSUT United staff
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler spoke to more than 700 members from both public and private sector unions at a rally in Newburgh. Photo by Michael Weisbrot.

Those who have long memories in the labor movement will tell you they have never seen times like these — a perfect storm of an economy gone sour and a political power-grab by conservative ideologues and corporate powerbrokers. Caught in the crosshairs are public service employees.

Poll after poll shows overwhelming national support — typically more than 60 percent — for collective bargaining, the bastion of unionism.

Yet, in at least 18 states, legislative majorities are determined to undermine fundamental workers' rights. Indeed, the very existence of public sector unions is under siege.

For weeks, hundreds of NYSUT members have staged rallies in support of public service employees in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and many others where basic union rights are being attacked in brazen fashion.

"We must stand shoulder to shoulder in defense of the workplace rights we have fought long and hard for," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. The union, he pledged, will never stand down on the basic rights unionists died for a century ago.

Union activists are mounting challenges to a law signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that essentially strips all collective bargaining rights from certain public employees.

Wisconsin's irresponsible action, "undermines not just good labor-management relations, but the essence of democracy itself," said William B. Gould IV, a professor of law at Stanford University and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich signed a bill that eliminates collective bargaining for workers in public colleges and puts the power of breaking contract disputes solely in the hands of public officials.

New York's state of mind

If you think it couldn't happen in New York, think again. Lawmakers, mayors and other officials are gunning for our rights to seniority, due process and to collectively bargain, rights that give us a voice — not only for fair wages and better working conditions, but to advocate for what our professions and students or patients need.

The United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's largest local, is standing up to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is trying to dismantle seniority in layoff decisions, claiming the city's finances give him no other choice. Yet, state officials, including Governor Cuomo, have repeatedly said that the city's fiscal conditions do not support the need for any layoffs.

NYSUT strongly opposed a bill passed in February by the state Senate that would eliminate seniority protections for New York City teachers. And the union is advocating against the push by the state School Boards Association to abolish the Triborough Amendment. Triborough maintains the terms of an expired agreement until a successor agreement is negotiated. In return, public service unions are prohibited from striking, typically a last resort for unions trying to press management.

What it means

The ability to collectively bargain underscores everything that happens in the professional workplace.

"Yes, it is an essential and effective tool for negotiating wages and benefits. But just as importantly, collective bargaining ensures we have a voice in the workplace, the ability to speak with confidence about the services our students or patients need, about best practices in our profession and to do so without fear of retribution," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira.

For union members, the loss of collective bargaining would mean open season on salary, benefits and work schedules. Beyond that, the gains that collective bargaining have achieved for all workers — health and safety protections, social security, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, maternity leave — would all be at risk.

Wages and benefits negotiated through collective bargaining can attract workers, and keep them dedicated and motivated. Pensions and health care plans can help retirees remain vital residents of their communities.

Take away collective bargaining and workplace rules can become arbitrary. Conditions can become ripe for cronyism and nepotism. Discrimination could go unchecked.

Take away collective bargaining and our professional voice becomes mute, with little to no ability to say anything about workloads on campus, patient loads in a hospital, safety on the school bus or the number of students in a classroom.

"That's why NYSUT will continue to keep the union strong for its members and fight to preserve our hard-earned rights," Iannuzzi said.

And that is why NYSUT needs every one of its 600,000 members to keep up the pressure, too, he said.