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The Fight for Labor in the Public Sector

Alex Bloom
September 2, 2017


by Alexander Bernhardt Bloom

From the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

THE PHONES rarely stopped ringing in the wing of the union’s headquarters assigned to Grievances. This was a good place for me to begin, explained Shirley. Here I’d get to know the members and their work through their voices on the phones. This proved true: Most spoke their piece to me, even after I explained that I was just an intern and a grievance representative would be ready to help them in a moment. The stories I heard brought me directly into the day-to-day business of the Social Service Employees Union, Local 371, a union that I began to see as connected intimately with the working lives of its members and the goings-on at their places of work.

The phones rang because members knew they’d be answered. The phones rang because members knew a sympathetic voice would be there for their counsel, that they’d find advocates who knew their work and would defend them in it. The phones rang because the local represents some 18,000 civil servants who do the daily work of a sprawling municipal bureaucracy, and a lot of problems come up.

My mentor for the autumn I spent at SSEU was the late, great Shirley Gray, assistant to the president, whose passing last year drew a tremendous crowd for a memorial gathering at the headquarters of District Council 37, New York’s largest municipal workers union. Shirley started her career in civil service in 1967. She spent a lifetime as a city worker and union activist involved with the homeless shelter system, and her work experience became a rich reference source for a new generation of social service employees.

In truth, just about every person who worked or walked the halls of DC 37’s headquarters had rich stories from the trenches of civil service to share. To this day Local 371 officers’ bios in union materials begin with a description of their experience as workers in the municipal system. Current President Anthony Wells, for example, was a caseworker in a Juvenile Center in the Bronx, one in a long line of presidents of Local 371 who came up from the ranks to take the helm of the union. This was among the greatest strengths of the organization: It created a certain trust between the union staff and its members, and a genuine interest, dedication, and identification on the parts of advocates towards the working people they represented.

I was an intern placed through Union Semester, a program of the City University of New York’s Joseph Murphy Institute, where my cohort met for evening classes after days spent in the offices of unions and workers’ organizations. All of us were eager to dig our hands into the fight for economic justice and workers’ rights in which these groups were involved — but really, we were there to learn. This I did, and while I was naturally inclined to carry the flag of what I quickly began to think of as my union, I discovered a great deal during my time at Local 371 that fall — about what it takes to run a union office and serve a massive membership, about the tools a union can possess and the strategies it can take up in the ongoing struggle for workers’ rights, and about what it takes to make a union great.

SSEU PLACED strong emphasis on grassroots and membership activism, and on “organizing the organized.” I recall being led through the union office early on and being introduced to the organizing department, a section that alternately buzzed with activity or was empty and silent. The organizers spent a great deal of their time in the field, Shirley explained, visiting members, observing the goings-on at their workplaces, and disseminating updates on the progress of negotiations and union initiatives. Union delegates were active, too, and made their faces known at the union offices, attended strategy meetings, and extended the reach of the union to its members back at the workplace.

As a young student of labor history and union politics, I was impressed by Local 371’s approach to internal organization. I had always associated organizing with grand and hard-fought campaigns for union recognition, to gain the right to representation. But new organizing was not a major focus of Local 371’s organizing wing. Their emphasis, rather, was to build and maintain the strength of the union by engaging their existing members. This was a foundation upon which the union stood, and I am convinced that its enduring strength is rooted in this commitment.

The services they offered members were broad and easily accessible. From eyeglasses to legal counsel, life insurance to SAT prep courses, benefits offered to members and their families were as varied as they were far-reaching. Member services that more directly related to their lives in the workplace were an important part of this model, too, with a grievance department ready to counsel members regarding workplace issues, and with other resources regarding job vacancies and civil service exams (including prep courses in the union office). SSEU’s welfare fund was designed to accommodate members’ needs and brighten their lives. It was a system and a staff, in other words, that supported members both in and outside the workplace.

These benefits were spoken about always as the reward of hard-fought struggles of the past, lest they be taken for granted. The negotiations department, presided over by Anthony Wells during my time there, was where the warriors in ongoing battles were headquartered, theirs a tireless and unflinching dedication in the fight for contractual gains, to maintain standards achieved, and to resist management efforts at rollbacks.

SSEU FOUGHT for bread and butter issues, but also on behalf of a broader, progressive political agenda. The union’s political action wing reached out to members to help them become politically involved, took a public stance on political issues, and created a visible presence at political events and demonstrations. The union stood in solidarity with other public-sector unions on the Municipal Labor Committee, endorsed anti-war and housing advocacy groups, and spoke out on legislative initiatives.

An organization very much of the now, SSEU was nevertheless deeply connected with its history. Union heroes and heroines were revered, and the campaigns they participated in were a vital part of discussions about the state of the union today. There was an emphasis on core union values, the fundamental principles that workers deserve a seat at the table and a say about their pay and working conditions, that the organized worker was strongest, and that the collective will of unionized men and women was an important part of the bigger fight for economic justice beyond their jobs.

My impression of the union’s members was of dedicated and proud professionals who brought purpose and passion to their work, and saw it as vital to New Yorkers in need. These were social service workers who fought on behalf of their clients and could call on their union to support them in that important work.

There was a sense of community and family within the union. Recreational and social gatherings filled the calendar. There were cultural celebrations and holidays and a familial spirit, and the union office was an inviting environment, our space. There was a strong sense of inclusion and connection among members and a deep respect for union elders, who had a vital role carved out for them. This sense of community was one of the union’s greatest strengths.

This was something I observed but also experienced in a very personal way: Local 371 is a union of civil servants whose membership is primarily women of color, closer in average age to 40 than to my college-undergraduate age. I had been raised in progressive circles and educated in alternative New York public schools, and had spent summers in a Yiddishist youth camp with socialist roots. My parents were unionists, but they weren’t city workers or civil servants. We’d marched in the Labor Day parade since my days in a stroller, but we marched in solidarity, not as union members. My own professional experience included not a lick of social work. Yet the family I came to know at the union quickly became mine. You felt a sense of place and belonging in a short time after having arrived, and that endures in a very real way years later.

This was the power of community at Local 371. The spirit of closeness and collective interest among its members and staff — united in their dedication to their work and to one another — represents one of the greatest strengths a union can possess.

IN JANUARY 2016, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association reached the Supreme Court, and labor union activists around the country held their breath. A decision in favor of Friedrichs would have decimated their ranks and resources by abolishing agency fees — the contributions made in lieu of union dues by workers who have voluntarily opted-out of union membership (though they remain covered by and enjoy the benefits of the contracts negotiated on their behalf by the union). Without this structure in place, public sector unions faced the loss of this vital resource for funding their operations, and had genuine concerns about retaining their membership.

With Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and his seat unoccupied thanks to Republican obstruction throughout President Obama’s final year in office, the Court was ideologically split, and the Friedrichs case yielded a 4-4 vote. As a result, the original decision in favor of the teacher’s union in California was upheld. It appeared that American labor had narrowly escaped a daunting fate.

On February 6 of this year, however, a new case was filed by the Center for Individual Rights, Yohn v. California Teachers Association, again aiming for the abolition of agency fees. Unionists and those of us who stand in solidarity with them now face a decision from what will certainly be a right-leaning Supreme Court.

The threat is as seriously understood at Local 371 as anywhere else. “Cut the funding source, cut the strength,” explained SSEU President Anthony Wells when we discussed the case.

The answer about what is to be done is not as easily summed up, but SSEU is on the offensive. To begin with, the union is in the midst of what they are calling a “blitz campaign,” with organizers in the field signing up for membership current agency fee-payers whose job titles are covered by the local. For the most part, these are civil servants with “community” titles, hired to city agencies without a written exam and dispersed among municipal work sites. This means the union’s organizers are spread thin in their efforts to track these workers down, green sign-up cards in hand and union membership pitch at the ready. Of the 18,000 city workers whose contracts Local 371 bargains on behalf of, about 1,200 are non-member agency fee-payers. The blitz strategy is driven by the idea that it will be easier to maintain these contributors as registered members should the agency fees be abolished by Supreme Court ruling.

The challenge of maintaining membership is especially difficult. If the Supreme Court rules against the California Teacher’s Association, public sector unions will have to make an argument to new and old members alike about why belonging and contributing to the union is worthwhile. The union will have to be ready with an answer for those who say they’d be better off with $35 extra in their pocket, to those who say that they don’t use the dentist all that often, to those who explain that they get along with their supervisor just fine and would just as soon represent themselves. As frustrating as such discussions may be for committed unionists, both practically and on principle, they are important ones to engage in.

Listen to the members. Know their needs and fight on behalf of them. Deliver. Strengthen the union through communication and presence and results. “Ours is an argument based on a record,” explained President Wells, a record of work that the union does in a variety of areas key to their members’ lives, which provides very clear answers to questions about the value of union membership.

There are, indeed, labor unions that have resisted the trends of shrinking numbers and diminishing power, maintained dignity and remained solid and steadfast in their good work. SSEU Local 371 is one such union. The model of activism promoted by both its leaders and members is one valuable model to be emulated by American labor in the face of the many threats it faces. The strategies I saw in practice at Local 371 suggest a direction for unions nationwide during trying times in the years ahead.

Alexander Bernhardt Bloom is a writer and school-teacher in his native Brooklyn, New York.