STATEN ISLAND — Sheila Conroy spent two weeks in the deep South last summer speaking with former union members who were barely making ends meet.
“One of the ladies that we spoke to worked in the personnel office, and they hadn’t received a raise in more than five years,” said Conroy, president of our Staten Island DDSO Local. “Her home was literally on cinder blocks, she was barely eating and was living check to check.”
During her volunteer assignment in Louisiana on behalf of AFSCME, Conroy personally witnessed the devastating effects of right-to-work legislation already in place in 28 states, which could soon become the law of the land.
The experience has helped Conroy to better communicate the importance of engaging CSEA members on the need to remain strong in the midst of these challenges.
“Without a union, you will not have the same level of benefits,” she said. “It would be like going to a developing country. The one percenters will definitely take advantage of us.”
During her first-time experience in knocking on doors and speaking one-on-one with her counterparts in the developmental disabilities field, Conroy heard how seniority rights had been abolished, mandatory overtime always meant working on the weekends and also never less than a 16-hour shift.
And, with no mandatory-minimum staffing levels, work site injuries had become the norm.
“When we first arrived, three workers were [forced to miss workdays]because of one individual,” said Conroy, noting the safety and health risks associated with anti-worker laws.
Conroy was part of a larger AFSCME member effort to recruit former members in right-to-work states who have lost their union and worker protections after membership had fallen below the required minimum threshold.
Many former members expressed fear of retaliation if they rejoined the union, Conroy said.
“It’s all the more reason why you should join, so that you can have a union to fight with you, and for you,” she said.
Following her experience in the South, Conroy quickly noted that one of the keys to successful member engagement is to follow up.
“You have to be visible,” said Conroy. “This is not a one-day event, not a weekly event. This is all the time. Once they see you around, and you’re educating them, they become more secure.”
Satisfied with the commitment on the part of AFSCME and CSEA to engage members, Conroy still cautioned that more hands on deck are needed.
“We need to educate workers that we’re not just fighting for today, we have to look out for the future,” she said.
“Because if we sleep on this; once we lose, it’s going to be very hard to get it back. We can’t afford to let this happen in New York.”
— David Galarza