January 2016 Issue
December 20, 2015

NYSUT won't rest until a living wage is achieved for all workers

Author: By Leslie Duncan Fottrell
Source: NYSUT United
NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale joins activists at the Capitol to call on lawmakers to raise the minimum wage for all workers — a move that requires legislative action. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.
Caption: NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale joins activists at the Capitol to call on lawmakers to raise the minimum wage for all workers — a move that requires legislative action.  Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

It is still dark when Cheryl Rockhill punches in; the clock clicks and stamps "6:00" on her timecard. "My first bus run is at 6:20," she says.

Rockhill will take two morning runs as a bus monitor then switch to her duties as a school monitor. She will punch in and out four times today, the last time at 3 p.m. — a solid eight-hour day at the school.

After working 18 years for the district, she makes a paltry $21,000 a year. And so, at 4:30 p.m., Rockhill begins her second job as a short order cook in a local ice cream shop.

At 9:30 p.m. she will head home. This is when Rockhill has the time to catch up on her work as president of her SRP unit — Brushton-Moira Support Staff Association. "I'm lucky if I crawl into bed before midnight. Then I'm up at 4:30 to start all over again."

Even with three jobs between them, it is challenging for Rockhill and her husband to pay for life's necessities.

"My sons asked why we never went on a big vacation," she says. "Well, we were too busy paying for other things. There was never enough left over to splurge on a big vacation."

This discussion prompted Rockhill to testify last June before the New York Wage Board and urge it to recommend a $15 minimum wage for all workers.

"As a person working two jobs, 60 plus hours a week ... I still face struggles financially," Rockhill told the board. "The cost of living rises much faster than wages."

NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, whose office oversees constituent services and social justice issues for the union, says the fight for a living wage impacts a disproportionate number of School- Related Professionals and adjunct professors, who too often live at or near the poverty line.

"We won't rest until all working men and women receive a livable wage," he said.

NYSUT accelerated its commitment to the "Fight for $15" campaign by joining in statewide rallies on Nov. 10. From Rochester to Buffalo to New York City, activists buzzed with excitement as news from multiple rallies, some beginning as early as 9 a.m., lit up social media.

In Albany, NYSUT members joined more than 250 activists at the Million Dollar Staircase at the Capitol to make the case that a $15 minimum wage hike must apply to all workers.

"We are going to continue this fight with all of our coalition partners, all of labor, all of our friends in the Legislature," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta.

Pallotta, Pecorale and Secretary- Treasurer Martin Messner stood in solidarity among union members and other coalition partners — SEIU locals 1199 and 200United; New York State Nurses Association; CSEA; Black Lives Matter; fast food workers, and more as chants rose up from the staircase: "Hey, hey, ho, ho. Poverty wage has got to go!" and "Fired up! Can't take no more!"

"Even with a Ph.D., working as a professor, I'm still a low-wage worker," said Bradley Russell, chairperson of the adjunct professors at the College of Saint Rose, Service Employees International Union Local 200United.

Russell — who highlighted the plight of highly educated and experienced adjunct professors whose wages qualify them for public assistance — was at the rally in solidarity with other low-wage workers. "All legitimate work has value and dignity," he said.

The depth and breadth of the coalition partnership over the issue of low wages — from adjuncts, to health care workers, to fast food workers and religious leaders — is a testament to how deep-rooted and widespread the struggle for a living wage is in this country.

"Capitalism is not working for the majority of Americans," said Albany's Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard.

As the statewide rallies drew widespread attention, Gov. Cuomo issued an executive order to boost the minimum wage for state workers to $15 an hour. In New York City, the minimum wage for fast food workers will be phased in by the end of 2018 and by 2021 for the rest of the state.

Teaching assistant Angie Rivera, president of the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals, is committed to working with area labor unions to fight for a living wage and erase the "domino effect" low wages have on employees who often come to work exhausted and have to take more sick time off from work.

"Most of our members have two or three jobs, or are on public assistance," Rivera noted.

After attending a fast food worker rally earlier this year, Rivera, a member of NYSUT's SRP Advisory Committee, was convinced — "Now is our time," she said.

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