Skyline of Richmond, Virginia

Panel Discussion on the Need for Unions


by John O. Mason
“I (blank) Unions” was the theme of a panel discussion held at the Starlight Ballroom, in the fourth floor of the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1900 Vine Street in Philadelphia, on Wednesday, June 01, 2011.
The discussion was sponsored by the Young Women’s committee of the Philadelphia chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW).
Emily Randle, Chair of the Young Women’s Committee of Philadelphia CLUW, began the program, saying about the committee, “We’ve been around since 2008, and we meet monthly to talk about the campaigns we’re working on, and see if we can help each other out. We also have these quarterly workshops,” covering such topics as fundraising, women running for union offices.
Randle spoke of her work with unions, and about “progressive people that I know who want to like unions and who don’t get unions, and who don’t know what we do and why we do it. They think that we’re ’big Labor,’ and they think that we’re mobby.” Randle told of how she got into the Labor movement, “through a very grass-roots effort for security guards…for me, it really changed my perspective on a lot of things, the way life is in this country, the way life is throughout the world, and it’s a message I really want to share with everyone I know, especially people who want to understand, who just haven’t been given the opportunity to talk about that.”
Melina Velis, of the Media Mobilizing Project (MMP), spoke of the group as, “a group that is dedicated to giving people, like union members, a voice and the skills to tell their own stories in the media.” Velis spoke of one of MMP’s programs, “Labor Justice Radio,” of a media training program coming up, where “We work with union members to give them the skills to produce radio pieces, and news about what’s going on in union struggles around the city and things that affect working people.”
Jackie Silver, a social worker at Temple University Hospital, was the first speaker. She was also president of Temple Allied Professionals (TAP) during the strike of workers at Temple Hospital. “I am a social worker,” she began, “and by training and by nature, you would think that we’re the first people to run around and advocate for ourselves, but we’re not, we take care of other people, we take care of our clients, but rarely do we do things that are in the best interest of us as individuals.” Professionally trained people, said Silver, are difficult to recruit into unions, because “life works for us. We have set schedules, we have offices, and we don’t tend to be what we would call ‘troublemakers’. So we don’t usually participate in unions or union activities, but I was a dues-paying member, because I come from a family of people who belonged to a union.”
Things began to change at Temple Hospital, said Silver, and “management started to do a lot of things that we thought were petty, inappropriate, things that you just shouldn’t do to workers, and we started demanding more of our rights as workers, and we’re just having the door closed right in our faces…We finally decided, ’We’re not going to take it anymore,” and she and her coworkers decided “to stand up as a group and say, ‘We’re going to demand our rights.’ We did that, and people were surprised, we got what we wanted. It was an issue of getting people to band together for a common cause.”
To Silver, a union, “is a group of people who have a lot of the same interests and needs getting together and standing tall and saying ‘we can do this’, because we can accomplish this as a group, it’s hard to do that on your own.” Silver remarked that since the strike at Temple Hospital, people learned the value of unions, that “We know those people are going to get out on the street, they’re going to mobilize people, they’re going to stand there and be heard.”
Dina Yarmus, a member of the Young Women’s Committee, spoke next. She is a member of UNITE/HERE Local 274, and active in the campaign for Earned Sick Leave in Philadelphia and the Media Mobilizing Project. An employee of the Radisson Warwick Hotel, Yarmus said the question of the need for unions “has really brought a lot of much needed attention to the question of democracy…and to whether or not a workplace is going to be a space for democracy in our society or not.”
Yarmus recalled, “I’ve worked in nonunion and union (work) hotels, my own sister works in the restaurant industry, in a nonunion workplace…(the sister) was fired from a job because a guest complained that she didn’t like the ‘sass’ that she gave her. My sister worked at this job for two years, with a nearly flawless record, and people loved her, people would ask for her to wait on them.
“Similarly,” added Yarmus, “I also think I do a good job, and I have customers that ask for me. Five times, managers the way they are, they tried to write me up on absolutely bogus accounts, (like) random guest complaints they couldn’t prove, not able to do three jobs at one time, absolutely bogus nonsense they couldn’t prove. Five times they tried to do that. And each time, because I had a union, I was able to organize (her) coworkers, to fight back, to prove there was no basis for that. They had to throw it out, and I still have my job today, a job that, with thirty hours a week, I have full health care coverage; a job that has a pension for when I retire, that I invested in after five years; a job where I have the ability to fight issues that may come up, if they’re unjust.”
It is not common, said Yarmus, to find unions in the hotel industry or other low-wage work; “Are we going to have workplaces in this country,” she asked, “be democratic places, places where we exercise democracy? Are they going to be places where people fight people can fight unfair staffing levels (and) getting fired on the spot, (and) people fight for health care in the context of working for multi-million dollar corporations? Are they going to be able to fight for retirement plans? Are they going to be able to fight for decent wages? I think they should be able to, and I think that’s why a union is relevant at the moment, and has been.”
Yarmus said that union members could build on the history of the struggle of the Labor movement, adding, “The history we benefit from is from a time when the Labor movement in this country fought for the interests of an entire class of people, and an entire standard of living. Think about what you might benefit from, unemployment benefits for when you lose your job, welfare rights, public education, child labor laws, Social Security, weekends, forty hour work weeks, health care coverage, pensions or any type of retirement plans, health and safety standards, OSHA, anything like that. All of that wasn’t just given to anyone. Those were all things that people fought for, and the Labor movement was at the forefront for all those struggles.
“Labor unions are under attack in the United States,” added Yarmus, “and internationally, but there’s a reality that Labor unions, as we know them today, and in the next ten years, might not exist. They’re under attack, we see what happened in Wisconsin.”
Megan Malachi, who is active in organizing her fellow charter school teachers, followed. She has been working with the Alliance of Charter School Employees, which is affiliated with the AFT and is a teacher at the Media Technology Charter School. “I’m …in the process,” she said, “of forming a union (in her charter school), we don’t have our union yet.” Malachi and her colleagues “have been doing this for about seven months, and it’s been extremely challenging I work at a place where I’m what you would call an ‘at-will’ employee, so…I basically have no rights, I can be fired at the whim of the administration, for anything they feel like I’m doing incorrectly. I really don’t have any type of recourse to fight for myself, as people who are in a union do.
“At my school,” added Malachi, “we also deal with a lot of professional disrespect. From day to day, our job descriptions change, we can be told ‘you need to do this, I need you to cover this class, I need you to stay late at night until six or seven o’clock to handle some type of student activity’ that you never signed up for. For lack of a better term, it’s just a really big mess.”
After she joined the Alliance of Charter School Employees, Malachi said, “I found there were a lot of things about unions that I didn’t know.” One of the fallacies about teachers’ unions, she said, “is that teachers’ unions keep bad teachers around. I found that’s really not true at all. I think the biggest thing that keeps bad teachers around is the failure of administration, and the fact that they don’t go through the process to hold those bad teachers accountable.”
Questions were taken from the audience.