May 2011 Issue
April 21, 2011

Turning a moment into a movement

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Marching to the rally are union officers from left, Andy Pallotta, Randi Weingarten, Dick Iannuzzi, Kathleen Donahue, Lee Cutler, Maria Neira and Dennis Van Roekel. Photo by Miller Photography.

The melting pot of working-class America has reached a boiling point. It created a power surge in Times Square last month, generated by thousands of educators, painters, plumbers, actors, artists, professors, auto workers, brewery workers, stage employees, nurses, electricians, sheet metal and iron workers ramped up to defend their rights.

"We are One! We are One!" the rally-goers roared down a tunnel of skyscrapers five blocks long, on either side of Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

The rally was an outgrowth of NYSUT's desire to end its Representative Assembly in New York City with a major solidarity event. The idea blossomed into a rally held in partnership with the state AFL-CIO and the city's Central Labor Council to bring public and private sector unions together, to push back against attacks waged across the country that seek to dismantle the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively, and to stifle those who seek to drive a wedge between public and private employees.

In speech after speech, and on sign after sign, the message was clear and emphatic: Leave collective bargaining alone. Stop blaming workers for the mess the banking industry and corporate greed wrought upon the economy. Stop trying to break the unions. Show respect for the working class, for this is what democracy looks like.

"For anyone who doubts our resolve, our message today is clear: We are one movement, and we demand that our rights be respected," Denis Hughes, president of the New York AFL-CIO told the crowd.

"This is a battle where the private sector and the public sector are united," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi from the stage. "The reason we stand by each other's side is because what we're facing is an attack on working conditions."

"What kind of crazy world is this?" Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, asked the crowd. "The very people who caused the economic crises are asking for and getting tax cuts."

"This is the square where workers and working families speak truth to power!" said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "We are telling the demonizers and the dehumanizers we are one and will not let them stifle our voice." She urged union members to turn this moment into a movement.

Educators came by plane, train, bus, automobile, and by foot. NYSUT delegates from the just-concluded Representative Assembly joined a train full of Long Island NYSUT members. A bus hired by the Onteora TA brought educators from the mid-Hudson region.

Others came as a party of one. Jeanette Stapley of Schroon Lake, a retired teacher and NYSUT board member, proudly pointed out other North Country educators who traveled from distant places like Hadley-Luzerne, Saranac Lake and Carthage.

"I'm here to protect the quality of education for our children and to protect democracy," Stapley said.

Yonkers Federation of Teachers retiree Deborah Collier said she came to show her solidarity with all union workers "so we don't forget we need unions to support our democratic process."

"We're here for Wisconsin and for our brothers and sisters across the country," said United Federation of Teachers member Emil Pietromonaco of Staten Island.

Jeff Peneston, United Liverpool Faculty Association and New York state's Teacher of the Year, was attending his first rally. "This is the first time I've ever felt disrespected" as a teacher, he said. "You can't ask someone to help raise your kids if you don't respect them."

"I realize that showing up is what it takes," said Anthony Dimartino, a glazer with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

And "Marie Antoinette," an actress with the Actors Equity Union appropriately dressed as the legendary Queen of France known for her wealth and insensitivity to workers and the poor, said she came to protest how corporations have messed up our economy and the world.

Larry Marino, a new local president, of the Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES was a union electrician for 15 years before becoming a teacher.

"I know the value of what unions bring. They give us the right to a safe workplace," he said.

Cynthia McDaniel, a visiting nurse and member of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council called the rally amazing.

"I have a union that fights for me on all levels. I know I need a union. Collective bargaining? No one's going to take that away from me without a fight." she said.