Leading the Way: The Transformation of a Union

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DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, center, speaks with activists about about the union’s  agenda and their role in creating a more dynamic union in the recently established “War Room” at DC 37 headquarters. The new space  serves as the base of operations for the new activists. Photo: Clarence Elie-Rivera


The union has embarked upon an ambitious, multi-year program to improve services, amplify the voice of members, expand organizing, engage activists, and reach out to the communities where our members live.

With this effort, the union seeks to lead the way for the city’s labor movement, even as unions around the country are being targeted by deep-pocketed, right-wing, anti-government groups.

These groups and their corporate and political allies have devoted decades to silencing the voices of working families. So far, their work has been successful: In the 1970s, nearly 35 percent of workers belonged to unions. That number has since plummeted to 10.4 percent this year. After decades of attacks, unions now only represent 6.4 percent of private-sector workers.Today, the network is turning its sights on public employees and their unions.

A new model of unionism

“We can no longer be reactive and defensive,” DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido said. “As our society becomes more polarized economically, the decimation of public employee unions would put the working class and middle class on the path to extinction.”

Recently, we have seen vital signs of renewed energy and spirit at DC 37:

● In June, thousands of members took advantage of the union’s first online survey and provided input that is helping shape the strategy for upcoming contract negotiations.

● When the city’s public schools opened in September, the Dept. of Education implemented its universal free-lunch program. This was something Dept. of Education Employees Local 372 sought for years. The union led the way to making this happen with legislative lobbying and by working in coalition with community groups.

● During a busy summer, union activists known as Volunteer Member Organizers (VMOs) visited the homes of members to discuss the benefits of belonging to a union, explain the dangers of a state constitutional convention and urge them to vote.

● All but two of the nearly 50 DC 37-endorsed candidates won their races on Sept. 12, Primary Day. This occurred as more than 200 volunteers knocked on 5,000 doors and made 6,000 phone calls in key City Council races throughout the city.

● On Election Day Nov. 7, voters will be asked whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. We oppose the convention because it would open up the possibility that important rights and protections — such as public employee pension guarantees, workers’ compensation, and public education — could be carved out of the constitution.

Since assuming the position of executive director two years ago, Garrido has made organizing new members a top priority of the union.

One of DC 37’s victories was convincing 100 percent of youth care workers at the Children’s Village residence on Staten Island to vote to join the union.

The union has negotiated with the city to bring hundreds of Information Technology consultants into full-time, unionized positions. In addition, the union now represents other workers who had been misclassified as managers during the Bloomberg administration. DC 37 membership now stands at 125,000, the highest in years.

Building a stronger union

Volunteer organizers are key to DC 37’s effort to strengthen its grassroots presence and educate the membership about the historic role of the union has played in defending working- and middle-class New Yorkers.

The 60 volunteers working with the Organizing Dept. have helped establish Member Action Teams (also known as MATs) in the workplace. These teams provide a voice for their coworkers and inspire more members to become activists.

Volunteers also strengthen union mobilization efforts. They are at the heart of DC 37’s long-term goal of transforming the union. The aim is to connect the union more with social movements, such as the Fight for $15, building greater political power and encouraging members to participate more in the day-to-day work of the unions, including resolving disputes with management, contract bargaining and organizing.

A lot of the new activists showed up for the Labor Day Parade on Sept. 9 to promote the union’s political agenda—and to bond with other members.

“I love being with all these people,” Local 372 member Maria Ortiz said. “It’s like family to me.”

Ortiz was accompanied by several other VMOs who, like her, are dedicated to issue education and expanding our network of activists.

Greater workplace presence

“We are going out to the job site,” said Patricia Peterson, a Local 1549 retiree. “We are telling people to make sure they vote no on the constitutional convention. We tell members about union benefits.”

“I love getting out and helping others,” said Virginia Salisbury, a Local 420 volunteer. “We let them know what’s going on in the union. We want members to be the voice and the eyes of the union.”

In recent months, the union has set up an Office of Community Partnerships to develop deeper, long-term relationships with community organizations.

Improved technology empowers the union to be more responsive to members. For example, union reps now carry tablets to prepare grievances and update membership files.

In September, DC 37 sent out new union cards that can be scanned electronically, making it easier for members to check in to meetings and events. Members can accumulate points on the cards, which will enable the union to acknowledge members with the strongest records of activism.

To improve and sustain ongoing communication with members, the union recently revamped its website, which now includes a regularly updated blog to keep members apprised of union activities and local and national events that have an impact on working families.

During the past two years, more members have become engaged with the union on interactive social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Social media and email helped keep members who work at City University of New York informed of breaking developments during the CUNY contract fight in 2016. Enhancements in electronic communication allows for members to include their email addresses when supplying contact information to the union.

In the next five years, the union expects thousands of members to retire. To ensure that younger members are prepared to fill these vacant positions, the Education Dept. has developed a program to support the development of a 21st century workforce.

The new training model aims to help members increase their skills and credentials. It will help members adapt to the continual technological changes in the workplace.

The new innovative model is designed to meet the needs of members in three areas:

● basic education (math, reading, writing, computer and foreign language skills;

● industry-specific expertise (high-level skills, such as engineering, health, law and information technology) and

● labor education (leadership, critical thinking, creativity, conflict resolution, and public speaking).

The department has expanded its instructor-led academic course offerings by establishing ties to colleges around the city.

A rebirth

“There is a very strong need for educating members,” said VMO Valerie Haynes, a Local 1549 retiree. “Many people don’t know what the union is about.”

“We are going back to the basics,” Garrido said. “The economy has shifted away from its old manufacturing base — where organizing was easier. Instead, we live in what’s largely a service economy in which many people work independently.

“Though a majority of Americans believe in unions, they generally have not experienced what it’s like to grow up with the union being part of their family. We want to restore a union consciousness,” he added.

This originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Public Employee Press.

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