Our Union: Fighting Together for Dignity and Respect

By ALMA ROPER

When I reflect on what is important in life, I always include the union.

For many years union members like us have fought for, and won, many of the rights that we have as city workers. Many have died in the fight for union rights.

Alma RoperFor 74 years, District Council 37 has played a profound role in shaping how Americans live and work. DC 37 has been a pioneer in exploring new ways to serve its members, providing career ladders to tens of thousands of members, while offering a wide range of health, education, and legal benefits.

On March 25, we remember the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that claimed the lives of more than 146 workers. Out of this tragedy, new workplace safety laws were enacted, creating a turning point in the labor movement.
On April 4, we commemorate 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to support Sanitation Workers of AFSCME Local 1733 who were striking for the right to collective bargaining.

The labor and the civil rights movements came together in a monumental struggle for human and public employee rights. The low-wage sanitation workers, most of whom were black, experienced racial discrimination. They enjoyed few of the protections that other workers had.

In addition to their sanitation work, often including unpaid overtime, many worked other jobs or relied on welfare and public housing. Following years of poor pay and dangerous working conditions, the deaths of co-workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker in a garbage compactor provoked several demonstrations.

The fight for human dignity and respect was expressed with a simple, compelling slogan, ”I AM A MAN” (coined by William Lucy, former AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer). The workers endured and won the right to organize.

I worked for 11 years in private industry without a union to represent me. I witnessed verbal attacks directed at my coworkers and personally experienced racial discrimination. These injustices helped me understand the importance of having a union that fights to protect members its and their rights as people and as workers.

My introduction to unions occurred when I joined the city workforce. On April 3, 1989, I started my civil service career, joining the ranks of the New York Police Department as a civilian employee. Right away, I participated in the everyday activities of the union and have remained active ever since.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s struggles as city workers are now upon us once again, throughout the country. More than 100 years of progress is now jeopardized by a case that is before the U.S. Supreme Court, Janus v. AFSCME. This case threatens to divide working people and limit our power.

But power-hungry wealthy people and greedy politicians who are doing their dirty work are in for a good fight. The blood of our ancestors shall not be shed in vain.

My brothers and sisters, we are the union — the mighty union — we stand proud together, forever. In the words of Dr. King, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

Alma Roper is the executive vice president of Clerical-Administrative Employees Local 1549.

This column appeared in the March 2018 issue of Public Employee Press, the official publication of District Council 37, AFSCME, which represents 125,000 municipal workers in New York City.

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