Editor’s Note: The following comes courtesy of Ralph Palladino’s “Union Strong” pamphlet – click here to view it in its entirety.
New York, NY – Are you interested in building the union at your work site? If so, congratulations! That is exactly what shop stewards and activists are supposed to do. As an activist/shop steward/elected union leader for over 40 years, I have some ideas I would like to share on building the union.
I became a shop steward at Bellevue Hospital in 1979. I was a CETA worker. CETA was a government jobs program that the federal government wanted to eliminate. The city wanted to lay us off. At the same time, there was a fight to keep hospitals from closing which was another threat to my job. I immediately became involved in both fights. The first thing I did inside the hospital was to distribute literature and circulate a petition. I also organized all CETA workers into a work site committee. We worked as a team, joining a citywide coalition and DC 37 to stop the layoffs. We were part of successful efforts to stop both layoffs and hospital closures.
As a result of these fights, members saw me as an activist. I ran for shop steward after my first year of employment. The majority of the shop stewards at that time did little to defend members from management abuses. When I became a steward, I chose a different path. Members prefer stewards who are not afraid of management. They know these stewards stand with them through thick-and-thin and respect that. You cannot win all battles, but you get respect when you try to do so. Too often, at that time, members would hear, “there is nothing I can do” from stewards and staff. There always is something you can do, even if it is just offering your best advice.
I subsequently ran for Chief Steward and won handily. I was running against a longtime veteran who had the backing of the union staff in place at that time. I found other good members who were not afraid to challenge management abuse and recruited them to run for shop steward. In a large work site like Bellevue, where we had over 800 members, you cannot do it all by yourself. As a public employee, I knew that what was going on at City Hall, Albany and Washington affected us at the hospital. I relayed that to the members and asked for their support in campaigns such as budget cuts fights, hospital privatization and even South African Anti-Apartheid. We held meetings, got members and the public to sign petitions, and organized for rallies. We joined with others to hold Black History Programs and other events.
We got involved in election fights like the David Dinkins’ mayoral campaign. We could not do any electioneering work, legally, inside the hospital. So, we did leaflet distribution outside the hospital during our lunch hour and before and after work. It is important that members understand the critical link between their jobs and politics. Our activities were so successful in mobilizing that Bellevue was chosen as the site of the massive anti-Medicaid cut rally called by DC 37 and private healthcare union Local 1199 in the mid 1990’s. We virtually emptied the hospital that day with tens of thousands of union members and health advocates joining this successful rally. We succeeded in staving off drastic cuts for years.
The attendance at our on-site union meetings eventually grew from about 10 to 100-150. Of
course, organizing meetings requires getting the word out to every area. We found activists in every area willing to assist us. Building the union can be done if you put the time and energy into it. Find like-minded individuals to work with. Do not be afraid to take on management,
when necessary. Talk to members and find ways to get them involved. It can be done!
Ralph Palladino is a retired 42-year veteran union leader from Clerical Administrative Local 1549 DC 37 AFSCME in New York City. For 21 years he served as Local 1549 2ndVice President overseeing Political Action/Advocacy, Shop Steward Training, and Internal Organizing. He played a key role in organizing Metro Plus HMO workers into Local 1549.
He is now a member of the DC37 AFSCME Retirees Association and has published articles in various publications including the New York Daily News, Staten Island Advance, Asbury Park Press, Los Angeles Free Press, The Coaster, the Mayor of New York’s website, LaborPress, and Labor Notes on issues of politics, racism, immigration, and labor. He was editor of the Local 1549 “Members in the Know” and “Shop Stewards in the Know” newsletters. The above work is part of a collection of columns called “Union Strong: Rebuilding the Labor Movement.”