By GREGORY N. HEIRES
More than 200 shop stewards in Local 1549 are fired up about carrying the union message to the workplace after they spent the Columbus Day weekend at a training conference.
The stewards had a full agenda at the gathering, whose theme was “Rise Up & Stay Strong Shop Steward.”
They learned about communicating effectively with their coworkers, organizing members to strengthen the union, dealing with workplace conflict, and getting involved in politics.
“The conference provided members with a wonderful opportunity to strengthen their skills in communicating with their coworkers and defending them in the workplace,” Local 1549 President Eddie Rodriguez said. “By gathering everyone in one place, the conference encouraged our stewards to interact and trade stories about what they do at work to be the voice of the union.”
“We have this conference every three years to give our shop stewards the tools and knowledge to defend members and the union,” Local 1549 President Eddie Rodriguez said. “This is a time to come together. We need to send a message to the people who want to destroy us.”
“We emphasized the importance of bringing the union message to the workplace,” Rodriguez said. “As I like to say, ‘If you learn something, share it. Take it back.’ ”
Shop Steward Melissa Tirado, who works as a clerical associate level 4 at North Central Hospital in the Bronx, likened the conference to a refresher course about the skills she needs to reach to members more effectively.
“We want to let our members know we are there to represent them,” said Tirado, noting that many city workers aren’t aware of the importance of unions, whether it concerns fighting management abuse, lobbying legislators or informing them about their rich benefits package.
For Tirado, the conference, which was held in Atlantic City, spoke to the need for additional training so that stewards can better educate members about union issues through one-to-one meetings and encourage them to get involved in union activities.
Participants said it’s especially important for unions to organize during a period in which public employee unions face a relentless attack by the extreme right and the White House.
“I feel they see us as a threat and want to take away our power,” Tirado said about the anti-union interests. “We have to show them that we are unstoppable.”
Shop Steward Ayanna Gabriel, who works at MetroPlus and is the chief shop steward of the local’s NYC Health+Hospitals chapter, said the conference helped address her shyness about initiating conversations with coworkers about the union.
“I am a little withdrawn,” she said. “I came away from the conference with a feeling that I shouldn’t be scared and should be able to approach people,” said Gabriel, who spoke on a panel entitled “Best Practices for Advocacy.” Shop Stewards Brunetta Tanner, Chrystle Bullock and Crystal Evans accompanied Gabriel on the panel.
Gabriel estimates that up to 70 percent of her coworkers are not well-versed about politics and the union movement. “We have to become more engaged,” Gabriel said.
Local 1549 2nd Vice President Ralph Palladino, who played a key role organizing the conference, said he was happy to see many young activists and new stewards at the conference. He noted that millennials are taking the lead in rebuilding the labor movement.
“Training has always been important, but even more so after the recent Janus case,” Local 1549 Executive Vice President Alma Roper said. Roper was referring the the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the anti-union Janus v. AFSCME case, which will hurt public employee unions financially by allowing non-members to receive services without paying fees
“Participants started the conference by reflecting on why they became shop stewards and by the end of the conference they felt excited, energized and well prepared to fight for their members at the work site,” Local Roper said.
“Local 1549 stewards were encouraged to play a bigger role in the union and education is the key to being better equipped to represent members,” Roper said.