2011-03-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Long A Card-Carrying Union Type
Commentary By Howard Schwach

I have been a union man for more than 40 years and am proud of the fact.

When I was just a teenager, I worked summers for Bargain Town, a large retailer on Rockaway Turnpike.

That was my first touch of unions. I was quickly signed up by the Retail Workers’ Union and told about my benefits as well as what my dues would be each week.

Welcome to the real world.

While in college, I worked summers and holidays for the U.S. Post Office in Far Rockaway.

There, I learned that union rules were sacrosanct, and that administrators violated those work rules at their own peril. Since the administrators were always trying to squeeze out more work for fewer hours of pay, those work rules became important. Without them, workers would have had no rights whatsoever.

I belonged to both the clerks and the carriers unions, and was always proud to say that I supported the union.

The Navy, of course, had no unions and there were really no work rules either.

You did what your officers told you to do when they told you to do it, or you went to the brig for a long, unhappy period of time.

I understood that concept, that a military union would not work and that sometimes orders just had to be obeyed.

We worked seven-days-a-week, 20 hours a day to fulfill the military mission, and that’s what was important.

There were inequities, of course. One southern Boatswain Mate first class took offense to the fact that I was Jewish and a “college boy” to boot.

Because of that, I spent several very uncomfortable weeks chipping paint in the bowels of an old tugboat.

I emerged at the end of each work day, covered in red lead and asbestos and unable to breathe very well. I still think of that as my term in hell, and perhaps the reason I have breathing problems nearly 50 years later.

There was nobody to complain to or to explain to the southern gentlemen that one should not be punished unless he had done something other than be born Jewish or graduated from college.

A union with some grievance rights would have been nice at that point.

Workers need to be protected from owners, whose only general interest is profit.

If it were not for unions and the right to bargain collectively, workers would still be working 70 hours a week for minimum wage and receiving no benefits whatsoever.

And that’s just the way some Republicans and business owners want it.

No safety rules, no sick days, no vacation days; and no right to ask for any of those things.

As the old saying went, “If you don’t like working here under my conditions, hit the road and find something you do like.”

Or, as Dr. Seuss famously said in his famous work, “The Lorax,” “Business is business, and business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.”

If you don’t understand the quote, ask your kid for a review of the book and an explanation.

The mayor, our quintessential businessman, made that point recently.

“This is what we’re willing to pay, and if you don’t like it, go work somewhere else,” he said in response to a question about his drive to do away with the entire civil service system.

In other immortal words from another time, “Let them eat cake.”

There have been several times that the union and its hard-bargained rules on seniority and tenure have saved my job.

I was teaching at IS 53 in Far Rockaway and writing for The Wave a little more than 20 years ago, when it became clear that a number of the members of Community School Board 27 were playing games such as denying promotions to minorities, appointing supervisors who supported their school board candidacies with both time and money and were creating noshow jobs for cronies, taking the money for those jobs from school budget lines.

I investigated and I wrote about it in The Wave.

I was called into the imperial presence of three school board members, who warned me that, should I continue to write about them, “I would find myself in Brooklyn with all the jungle bunnies.”

I continued to write.

One of the school board members called a district office supervisor, a friend of mine from teaching at another Rockaway school.

“He’s looking for ways to get rid of you,” the friend said, naming the school board member. “He’s ordered the principal observe you every day andgiveyouaUrating.”

Luckily for me, I was a tenured teacher at the time, and even a trumped-up U rating would not have ended my career.

I was observed every day for a time, but the principal was also tenured, and smart enough to know not to play that game with a newspaper person.

I grieved every unsatisfactory observation and the harassment finally ended.

As a final gasp, the school board members went to The Wave and demanded that I be fired.

They made the rounds of Irish bars, asking owners to pull their advertisements from the paper until I was fired.

The publisher, however, saw a good story and told the board members to take a walk. A boycott of The Wave never materialized.

Without tenure and seniority rules, however, I would have been gone, not because I was Jewish or a college graduate, but because I wrote the truth about them.

Two of them eventually pled guilty to federal and state charges of mail fraud and coercion.

Bloomberg is trying to break the union so that he can go back to the old ways of hiring and firing.

We can’t let him get away with it.

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Well said!

Well said!

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