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“I’m Union and I Vote”

October 26, 2015
By Bill Hohlfeld

“Strength and Solidarity” read the banners that were draped roadside along Routes 119 and 9A in Elmsford last Thursday evening. To some motorists their presence must have raised questions. But, to the drivers of the cars that rapidly filled the parking lot at 160 So. Central Avenue, there was no doubt as to what those signs meant. Members of Teamsters Local 456 were gathering to attend their political action meeting.

Business Agent, Lou Picani opened the meeting and introduced the various speakers. Whether they were public officials or elected union representatives, there was no shortage of political power in the room. It was a power that was being harnessed to do some of the heavy lifting for the men and women who sat in the union hall.

George Miranda, President of Joint Council 16 and Teamster International Vice-President reminded the audience they were not alone. They were part of an organization that was 124 million strong, that their strength was largely due to their diversity, and that strength enabled them to continue the fight against anti- worker policies such as the Trans -Pacific Partnership (TPP).

His sentiments were echoed by Local 282 President, Tom Guesaldi, who went on to thank the membership for the strong turnout. He also underscored the importance of coming out to meet and greet the political candidates who support the idea of union wages, healthcare and pensions for working people.

In a genuinely warm moment, tribute was paid to Father James Villa of St. Eugene parish in Yonkers. For his dedication to the social justice movement in general, and workers rights in particular, he was presented with an honorary membership card. It took the form of the “gold card” that each member receives upon retirement. The good father, visibly moved, thanked the membership for “the privilege of now being able to say we teamsters.”

First among the politicians was NYS Senator and  Democratic Conference Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Her message was simple: “We get it.” Speaking from personal experience, as the asthmatic child of an African -American world War II veteran, who did not at first find the economic opportunities he had envisioned when he came home from service. It was not until he found his union that he received the health care, sick leave and vacation time so necessary to maintaining a family.  She went on to pledge that she would continue in the struggle to make  everyone understand that there is dignity in work. “We have your back,” she said in your mission to “make America’s dream come true.”

She was followed by State Senator George Latimer, who was also the product of a union household, his father being a maintenance man and his mother, a machinist. He spoke of the diverse socio-economic constituents in his district. He recounted a story of an occasion on which one of his more well-to-do constituents asked him a question. Alluding broadly to the working class the constituent asked: “What do these people want?”

The Senator’s answer hit home with the people filling the crowded room. “ They want to know that labor is respected… that they be able to give their children a better life.” Amidst applause, he told the membership that what they want is what they deserve, and he knew that in addition to answering to them, the voters, someday when he got to the “other side” he would have to answer to Stan and Loretta. There was no doubt he was referring to the working class parents who had raised him.

One after another they came. Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer pledged her support for the amendment of municipal law 207-C so that Yonkers detention officers, (who are teamsters), injured or becoming ill in the line of duty receive payment of the salary, wages, medical and hospital expenses, in the same manner that other law enforcement personnel do.

Mayor of Yonkers, Mike Spano praised the municipal workers for their hard work and dedication, thanking them for their dependability, especially when the “chips are down.” He remembered their valiant efforts during and after Hurricane Sandy, and is secure that whether Yonkers is faced with blizzards, hurricanes or ice storms they are in good hands. He ended by saying he was not just grateful, but humbled by the teamster endorsement.

As energized as the room was, however, there was no illusion that all is well for working people in this current political climate. In the words of Jim Rogers, a spokesperson for the NYSDOL, “the eradication of the middle class is no joke… wages are stagnant while productivity is way up, and public policy takes a long time to change.”

There was no doubt the members of the local heard the message from the podium loud and clear. Rick Planentila, an employee of the Ossining Highway Department was all ears at the meeting. In his view: “ Politicians need to be realistic about what we do. They should show support for all unions, not just teamsters. Book smarts are great, but dirty hands are better.”

Another member, Brian Carter, will be retiring from the Yonkers Sanitation Department on October 29th after 36 years of service. He too was quite clear in what he expected from an elected official : “ They need to be sensitive to labor; to hear us, and our concerns for a fair share. We are on the front line plowing, providing lighting, water and sewer services. We shouldn’t be taken for granted. We don’t leave the job undone.”

Finally, James McGrath put it succinctly. “ I will back the politicians who back labor, who help me to put bread on the table.

These guys “get it” too. And, they vote.

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