March 2012 Issue
February 21, 2012

Brian O'Shaughnessy: The workers' champion

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: New York State Labor-Religion Coalition Director Brian O'Shaughnessy. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Since the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition took its first, purposeful steps, Brian O'Shaughnessy has nurtured the organization from toddler to adulthood, from car seat to driver.

As he leaves after serving 18 years as its director, the coalition's first, O'Shaughnessy's accomplishments are spread out like photos and newspaper clippings in a proud parent's scrapbook.

"There's something about the combination of labor and religion that crosses some people's eyes — they can't wrap their head around it — while for others, ethics and worker justice certainly fit together perfectly," O'Shaughnessy said. "What workers have been struggling for is not just a labor issue, it's a moral issue. Unfortunately, it's probably needed more today than 30 years ago. Workers are being scapegoated for the 1 percent unwilling to contribute, as we've seen in Wisconsin, throughout the country, and here in New York."

He's been in the thick of the organization and its causes since 1980, when the coalition first took shape with volunteers, including NYSUT President Emeritus Thomas Hobart. A board was formed in 1994 and O'Shaughnessy was hired to oversee intense projects to change the workers' landscape for the better — Sweatfree Schools. Fair Trade. Justice for Farm Workers. Living Wage.

A hallmark of O'Shaughnessy's legacy is the coalition's annual 40-hour Fast for workers' rights. This month's events commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous Bread and Roses strike when Lawrence, Mass., textile workers "won a David vs. Goliath, 99 percent vs. 1 percent, struggle for better wages and respect," as O'Shaughnessy describes it.

In that vein, the coalition applauds a bill currently in the state Legislature to increase the minimum wage 17 percent to $8.50 per hour. "More and more people are working poor, which is an absolute insult in this land of plenty," O'Shaughnessy said.

O'Shaughnessy also helped launch the Sweatfree Schools project, which prompts school districts to stop buying goods, such as uniforms and sports apparel, that are produced in sweatshops. The coalition, after convincing New York to become only the third state to join the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, is also collaborating with key state officials to have New York adopt a Code of Conduct. This would require vendors seeking to sell apparel to the state to take a key step toward protecting worker rights in factories across the globe.

The coalition also has worked hard on behalf of farmworkers, advocating for legislation that would provide some overtime compensation, one day a week of legal rest and the right to organize.

O'Shaughnessy, a former Catholic priest who lived 17 years in public housing as part of his duties, has worked with Solidarity Housing projects, Employee Ownership program, and the Capital District Community Loan Fund. He headed the Albany Diocesan Peace and Justice Commission. His wife, grassroots activist Maureen Casey, has worked alongside him at the coalition.

"I have known Brian not only in my seven years here at NYSUT and as co-chair of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, but for several decades as a local leader in Central Islip," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.

"Whether it was sweatfree schools, fair trade or farmworkers' rights, he has lead them with the zeal and valor that most of us could only hope to aspire to."