Though unions remain an American fixture, they are in a state of decline. They are very much in the news these days and the stories are often not flattering or encouraging — but, of course, we know that when only one side of a story is presented it means the view may be clouded by the storyteller’s vision. Can we say the same doesn’t hold true about the way labour unions are viewed?
Public employee unions are facing much scrutiny and, given government’s fiscal constraints, labour unions are often attacked as vessels of greed that protect unproductive workers. To present the other side, I had a conversation with Ms. Carmen Charles, President of the Public Healthcare Employees Union, Local 420, in New York City. Local 420 is a 8,200-member union that is part of an approximately 115,000-member union, District Council 37 which is the largest municipal employee union in New York City. DC 37, for which Ms. Charles is a Vice President, represents the clerical, maintenance and technical workers who keep New York City running. Local 420 represents non-medical healthcare workers in professions such as bio-medical and operating room technicians, and housekeeping services.
According to her union biography,
“Carmen Charles became president of Municipal Hospital Employees Local 420 in 2002 when she led the Workers 4 Workers slate to victory. Her climb to the top post began as a Nurse’s Aide at Coler-Goldwater Hospital. In 1987 she became a shop steward and in 1999 was elected vice president of the 10,000 member local. As president she has negotiated upgrades for her members, made the local more financially accountable and fought against contracting out while encouraging members to get more active in union affairs. A strong advocate of using education as a tool for empowerment, Charles is a graduate of Cornell University’s Union Leadership Program.”
I asked Ms. Charles to give me with her view as to where she believes unions currently stand:
Ms. Charles: Within the last 10 years the right wing establishment, on a national level, has targeted unions like never before. I think this is most likely because of what unions stand for; we empower our members to stand up for their rights in terms of working conditions, salaries and to be active participants in the communities in which they live. More importantly, we help people realise the “American Dream” through wages and benefits that help to place them in the middle class.
~ I want to focus on union history — their role and the employees who are represented.
Ms. Charles: In terms of the history of Local 420, when the union was created it had goals that we have since shifted from. We’ve become more political, which could be one reason why our membership is declining. We care too much about what politicians think of us so unions now walk a fine line between what our members need and what the politicians believe about us and what they want us to be. Unfortunately, we often do not pay attention to what the politicians say versus what they do. They may appear to understand the workers’ plight but their actions say otherwise. One example of this is the new ‘Tier 6 pension plan. This plan is devastating for new employees. Under the terms of this plan, the retirement age has been increased to 63 years of age and it takes 10 years to become vested in the pension system.
~ Playing devil’s advocate, I mentioned to Ms. Charles that many private sector employees, just as the politicians, may not care about the plight of public sector employees given their own economic challenges. The argument is often that those in the private sector must contribute towards their own medical benefits and retirement plans — and public employees’ salaries and benefits are at the expense of taxpayers. How do you respond?
Ms. Charles: What I would like people to know is that public and private sector employees are facing the same struggles; declining wages and benefits are affecting everyone. Additionally, I’d like people to consider that the tasks public sector workers do are often jobs that others wouldn’t want to do. We are those people in hospitals who take care of the people who cannot take care of themselves. Union workers are also the people who maintain the city’s functions by cleaning, repairing sewers, handling dead bodies in the mortuaries, and handling clerical operations. Another thing people should realise is that WE are taxpayers too; we contribute to the city and state through our contributions even when we are not fairly compensated for the often back-breaking work we do.
~ Pensions are a hot topic. Elected officials such as Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) have attempted to press forward on the issues of suspending collective bargaining and pension reductions. I asked Ms. Charles what are her thoughts on this.
Ms. Charles: The average city worker makes a $25,000 per year pension so it’s not like anyone is getting rich from this. These workers have devoted their energies to the system and, with the changes, are being asked to retire much later. We need to change the way we bargain because our future is at stake. Privatising work done by union employees will not resolve (city budget) issues.
~ That leads us to a discussion about the future of unions in New York and, perhaps, nationally. Where do you see it headed?
Ms. Charles: The future looks bleak for unions. We are losing our “power”. My particular union hasn’t had a contract for two years and the mayor (Michael Bloomberg) will not come to the table. DC37 did not support the mayor in his run for a third term in office (the term limit law was changed so that he could run) and I believe his lack of willingness to negotiate is retaliatory.
~ If the future is looking dismal, what changes would you like to see?
Ms. Charles: I would like to see public and private sector employees speaking with one voice; again, salaries, workplace conditions and economic stability are issues that affect us all. We should all be thinking about our entire packages; that includes benefits, healthcare and time off – not just salaries. In order to see unions move forward we should change the way we bargain and recondition our thinking. Additionally, term limits for union leadership, and greater accountability is needed. We preach democracy but we are not inclusive — and we certainly are not as inclusive of younger members and their ideas as we should be. We need their energy and ideas — and our own insecurities and desire to stay at the top of the ranks is blocking growth of the union.
~ What would you like people to be aware of and/or consider?
Ms. Charles: The general public shouldn’t jump to conclusions and rush to judgment about unions. We helped build this country and keep it running. We are not greedy and shiftless — with our hands out looking to get money from taxpayers. Many of our members go above and beyond the call of duty even though they work in conditions that many people wouldn’t tolerate or believe. But we still do our jobs — and we contribute towards both the democratic process and the tax system in this country.
It is important that we, the people, keep proper perspective when it comes to labour unions. As is the case with government and various institutions, unions are not inherently bad. However, fiscal malfeasance and flagrant mismanagement has sullied the reputation of both. Should we discard the entire system based on a few bad actors? Of course not — we must work toward reforming what has stepped outside the lines, clarify the core mission and bring organisations to a level of optimal value.