Melanie Cunningham is a school nurse and member of the NYSUT Health Care Professionals Council.
1. You used to work for General Motors before the plant closed. What was it like working a union factory job? When I was hired in 1997 I felt like I was set for life. I was so happy and honored — I was the third generation to work for GM and be part of the United Auto Workers. My grandfather worked for GM in the 1940s; then my father worked there for 36 years.
I was hired as a lost foam technician, I then became a team leader for my area. I was also our union benefit representative. I took care of medical and life insurance, workers' compensation and unemployment claims for all active and retired union members.
We learned about the plant closing at my cousin's wedding in 2007. It was in the local paper on the front page. The company did not tell us. Our union held many meetings and gave information as it went along. We had politicians from all over the state, including the governor, offer help. People had to make decisions: transfer to a plant in another state, take a lump sum buyout or work as long as you could and see what happened.
My husband and I chose to stay and work. We were part of the union and we were there to see that everyone was taken care of first. My boss walked in on a Wednesday and said: "Friday is your last day to be out of here. You have till 3:30." I had 12 years in. My husband, who was the shop steward, was let go on the same day. We had five children to support. It's a night I'll never forget.
2. What was it like moving forward and how did your union help?
I cried for days and felt like doom and gloom. I thought I was too old to start over. My union was there to help. I was put back on payroll from Oct. 1 until Dec. 31 to help members with their benefits. In December, with one pay day left, I went to SUNY Canton and enrolled. I was nervous, but knew I needed a career. I never wanted to go through another plant closing. I wanted to be a nurse and I challenged myself to succeed.
My union fought and negotiated for us and we were given benefits via the Trade Act to go back to school. I took full advantage of this. Going back to school was the hardest thing I did but it was well worth it.
3. Why did you choose to go into nursing?
I always liked caring for and helping people. I remember taking care of my grandfather when he was sick, and seeing how you can make a difference when someone is in pain.
I also have two amazing sisters-in-law who are nurses and they inspire me. They told me I was a natural with people. I wanted a career that my children and my family would be proud of. Best thing I ever did.
4. Hospital nurses can make more money. Why did you choose to work in a school district?
The school where I work is the one I graduated from, so it has a special place in my heart. I love being a school nurse. It's like running a mini ER and I am challenged every day. I advocate for students on many issues. I feel that I make a positive impact on students and educate them on healthy choices.
Sometimes they need someone to show them some kindness and make them feel good about themselves. A school nurse is not just about stomachaches. Children have so many issues and I like to help them and their families out as much as I can. School nurses are often the first ones to see that something is going on. We facilitate with other agencies to make sure students receive other services if needed. I also work with a great staff. Getting up in the morning and being excited to go to work is priceless.
5. How did you get involved in the NYSUT Health Care Professionals Council?
I was asked to be part of the council by my local union. I was honored. You need to use your voice to stand up for the safety and well-being of health care professionals, people in society and children.
It's important to educate yourself about what is going on, to reach out to politicians and talk about the issues we are facing. We need to educate those who are not part of the union about why it is important to be part of the union so positive change can happen. Collective bargaining is the heart and passion of the union and I am proud to be part of it.