Proud to be union

Bodies falling from windows as smoke billowed through a factory with only one fully operational elevator accessed through a narrow corridor. Doors locked to prevent theft. Owners ignored the demands of the International Ladies Garment Workers Unions and successfully maintained sweatshop conditions. Such was the tragic day when 145 people died in the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

The workers, mostly immigrant women, were denied the advantages of the union when the owners paid those in power to make sure the union could not make changes that effected hours, working conditions, and safety factors in their building. Today, we would fight back with our collective, unionized voice to remediate the disturbing conditions that led to needless deaths.

Middle class workers deserve a voice that ensures safety, equity, due process, quality of life, and protection against abuse. Our unions are that voice.
Whether we speak of garment workers, police, firefighters, teamsters or teachers -- the middle class workers that built America deserve a voice that ensures safety, equity, due process, quality of life, and protection against abuse. Our unions are that voice. The rise of unions in the twentieth century made sure that conditions such as those present in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disappeared. 

When two sides with self-interests come to the table, it is natural that the side with more power will come out on top. Unions exercising collective bargaining protect the interests of its members and in so doing, the interest of the children whom its members serve. They make sure students and teachers get adequate supplies and protect against having too many students in a classroom. Unions protect teachers against involuntary transfers, provide sick and personal days, ensure that teacher evaluations are conducted fairly, and that due process is in place should a violation of the contract occur. 

Several times in my career an administrator wanted to let a teacher go, not over a criminal act or a policy violation, but simply over a difference of opinion or a personality conflict.  If not for the protection of the union and the assurance of due process, many fine teachers would have been fired in such scenarios. 

When we are young and idealistic, we might think that our teaching is so special and unique that we could never be replaced. This is not true. Just recently, West Virginia tried to eliminate seniority. Three unions, representing fifty-five counties, fought back and after a nine-day strike, stopped this from happening. They also stopped bills that would expand charter schools, eliminate dues deductions from paychecks and increase health insurance premiums. They received a much-needed raise. 

Let us hope that the message delivered in West Virginia  – and other states – has been heard by the Supreme Court justices before they vote on the Janus Case which will determine whether or not requiring federal employees to pay union dues is a violation of First Amendment rights.

Let us stand together and exercise solidarity and stop this from happening. The united voice of the West Virginia unions was heard loud and clear and I am proud of them and proud to be union. ■

Lisa Nichols, PhD teaches second grade at Steere Farm Elementary in Burrillville.

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