NEWS / PUBLICATIONSMEDIA CENTERNEWS
MAR 04, 2020
Putting Community First: USW Public Workers Thrive Despite Challenges
When Joe Plagenza travels the streets of Boston, the reception he gets resembles a family holiday or a high school reunion. Seemingly on every block in the city of 700,000, a resident has a smile and a kind word for him.
For the Local 9158 treasurer and 30-year city employee, it’s just another day at the office. That’s because, for him, the office is synonymous with his hometown.
Plagenza has spent most of his career responding to residents’ concerns on behalf of the Boston parks department. He also is one of the more than 25,000 public workers across North America who are members of the USW.
“As public employees, you carry a great burden on your shoulders,” said Roberson Castor, a Local 9158 member and construction project manager. “You’re working not just for yourself. You’re working for everyone.”
For the USW’s public workers in Boston and around the country, that community-first spirit permeates their workplaces and their union halls. Nearly two years after the Supreme Court gave public employees the right to reap the benefits of union representation without paying dues, USW public employee locals are strong and growing thanks to a renewed focus on organizing, both inside and outside of USW workplaces.
In June 2018, the right-wing court majority overturned decades of precedent by ruling, in the case of Janus vs. AFSCME, that public workers no longer had to pay dues or even smaller “fair share” fees to cover the cost of bargaining, arbitration and other union business.
“The Janus ruling was an attack on working people, but it also was a call to action,” said International Vice President Fred Redmond, who oversees bargaining for the union’s public workers.
“That’s why we must keep fighting every day to organize new workplaces and demand that our elected officials make it easier for people in both the private and the public sectors to join unions.”
CHANGING THE GAME
The Janus case was part of a decadeslong, systematic effort by corporate America to starve unions financially and, thus, subjugate and silence workers. However, for USW members, so far the ruling has had the opposite effect.
“We recognized that Janus was going to change the game,” said Jim Williams, president of Local 8599, which represents school employees in Fontana, Calif. “That’s why we focused on organizing from day one. We don’t have our heads in the sand.”
Williams decided to put his strongest organizer in charge of welcoming new workers and encouraging them to get involved in the union. That approach has paid big dividends, with only eight of the local’s 1,900 members choosing not to pay dues.
“I take it personally,” he said. “I am personally offended when somebody opts out.”
That devotion to building strength and solidarity is an attitude shared by the USW’s public workers, from Boston and Pittsburgh to California and New Mexico. And the approach has been a success, not just for Steelworkers but for the families and communities they serve.
“I take a lot of pride in the work that we do,” said Boston arborist and Local 9158 member Greg Mosman, who helps to care for the city’s 38,000 trees across 2,800 acres. “We make Boston a more beautiful city.”
Mosman’s USW brother and colleague Anthony Hennessy is the city’s superintendent of horticulture. He oversees roughly 40,000 plants and flowers each year in more than 100 locations. He said the work that he and his fellow city employees perform helps to give residents and visitors a more positive outlook on life.
“Urban beautification is important work,” he said. “People love their city.”
MAINTAINING QUALITY OF LIFE
The work that other public employees do, whether they drive school buses, serve in law enforcement, prepare food, maintain roads or perform other vital tasks, is also critical to the quality of life for residents.
“Public employees always show up. Whenever something happens, we are there,” said Steven McHugh, deputy superintendent for Boston’s emergency medical service and a USW member. “Emergencies happen anytime, anywhere – nights, holidays, weekends.”
That 24/7 need for services means that life can be difficult and unpredictable for public workers.
“You learn to work around it,” McHugh said. “Sometimes, Christmas has to be on the 23rd or the 27th.”
The misconception that public workers have overly comfortable schedules or are a drain on taxpayers is a deliberate distortion created by the same anti-union forces who supported the Janus case and who have been fighting against workers for decades, Williams said.
Although unionized public workers have better retirement plans and more on-the-job protections than their non-union counterparts, they often make sacrifices in other areas to secure those benefits, said Joe Smith, president of Boston’s USW Local 9158, known as SENA (Salaried Employees of North America).
“Nobody is getting rich doing this kind of work,” said Williams. “It has to be a labor of love, doesn’t it?”
GOOD CONTRACTS CRITICAL
Still, with union membership comes a degree of certainty. Public workers’ contracts ensure that they receive good pay, quality benefits, fair scheduling, a secure retirement and respect on the job.
These are benefits, won through years of labor activism, that some nonunion workers simply take for granted, said Local 9424 President Filiberto Aguirre, who works as a water and sewer line locator in the city of Las Cruces in southern New Mexico.
But union workers have an added benefit. “I don’t have to worry about repercussions for using my voice and doing what is right,” Aguirre explained.
Ensuring that bosses treat workers fairly is one of the most important aspects of union membership, said Michelle Alcaraz, a Local 8599 member who works in tech support for Southern California’s Fontana Unified School District.
That guarantee helps to ensure that women and men are treated equally in a profession that is often dominated by men, she said.
“The Steelworkers do a great job of keeping checks and balances,”
In the wake of the Janus ruling, that promise of justice and fairness can be one of the strongest selling points union leaders can use when organizing new members, Williams said. Another, he said, is the strength that comes from being Steelworkers.
“We’re strong locally and nationally,” said Williams, whose local represents employees of the Fontana school district who are not classroom teachers or administrators. The local includes library aides, technical support and food service workers, custodians and security officers. “We are part of a strong manufacturing union.”
“Sometimes people ask me what products we make,” he said. “And we do make something – we make people. They’re on a long, 13-year conveyor belt, and when they leave our factory, they’re wearing that cap, if we do our jobs right. We are all educators.”
Williams said he understands the anti-public-worker trope is repeated so often by corporate and anti-union media that many have come to accept it as fact. But he knows it is not.
“There are financial pressures in so many communities, and they want to blame somebody,” he said. “The first things they look at are the pensions, the health care.”
Public workers can fight back against negative stereotypes by giving back to their communities and by being good stewards of the public trust, Williams said.
“All we have to do is continue to do a good job,” he said.
Maintaining public trust is part of the job for USW member David Hinton, who manages a community center in inner-city Boston. His facility runs on a combination of support from city funds, grants, private donations and nonprofit organizations.
“It’s a good partnership, and it gives the community a sense of ownership,” Hinton said.
VALUE OF PUBLIC WORK
Making sure that the public, and by extension elected officials, understand and buy into the value of their work is an essential part of being a public employee, said Boston’s Stephanie Seskin, a SENA Local 9158 member who plans and creates bicycle paths throughout the city.
Her work cuts down on traffic, reduces the need for road repairs, helps combat pollution and climate change, makes travel safer and provides a fitness opportunity for residents, she said.
“Working for the public is a heavy weight,” Seskin said. “But all of these things contribute to the public good.”
Local 8599 member Richard Romo, a senior custodian in Fontana, said he knows that schoolchildren and other staff members appreciate his efforts to maintain a healthy environment for them.
During a recent shift cleaning up after a lunch period, a student approached him and placed a sticker on his shirt thanking him for his hard work.
“Little things like that make it worth coming in every day,” Romo said.
For the USW’s public workers, knowing that the people and communities they serve appreciate and support their work can be the difference between staying in a job for decades and finding employment elsewhere. That, in turn, keeps the USW’s public sector strong.
For Aguirre, making a difference, not just for the 400-plus members of Local 9424, but for the 100,000 residents of his city, is what keeps him coming back each day.
If he makes a mistake on the job, it could result in water getting cut off from homes, businesses, schools or hospitals.
“Even something like fire safety could be affected,” Aguirre said. “It gives me pride to know that because of us, the water is going to keep running, our parks are going to be clean, our facilities are going to keep running. We’re keeping Las Cruces beautiful and safe.”