Gregory Floyd, President, Teamsters Local 237 and Vice President at-large on the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (58516)
Gregory Floyd, President, Teamsters Local 237 and Vice President at-large on the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters

Fall marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new season. For some of us, the change is met with a little sadness, while for others, fall is greeted with enthusiasm: it ushers in the start of the new school year; the excitement of Halloween and Christmas looming ahead, and the annual holidays that salute labor and regale the discovery of the “New World.” 

Local 237 would like to thank our members and other public sector employees for their tireless efforts on behalf of so many New Yorkers, whose lives and livelihoods depend on municipal agencies operating seamlessly despite the challenges. As former President Barack Obama said: “When times are tough, we don’t give up. We get up.” That’s precisely what public employees did and continue to do. During the height of the pandemic, at a time of unimaginable grief, when a sudden, highly contagious virus rocked the entire globe and our own personal world, union members—and especially public sector workers—didn’t give up; they got up and went to work. During a time that immersed us in dread and paralyzed so many with fear—an unnerving time that, for some, meant there would be no final hug, goodbye or sacraments to meet our maker—these essential municipal workers were on the job. Now, as we are trying to revive the City and the State, public workers remain an essential element in New York’s recovery. 

Union membership across the nation has declined from its peak of 35% in 1954 to only 10.8% currently. With New York among the states with the largest number of union workers—roughly 22%—about 70% of the union workforce is in the public sector—consistent with the national percentage of public sector union membership being approximately five times that of the private sector—with African Americans making up the largest component of that group. 

But today, after a decades-old hiatus, union membership in both the public and private sectors is on the rise. The remarkable win by Amazon workers in Staten Island to unionize was no small feat. Just two years ago, this newly formed “Amazon Labor Union” did not exist. A Staten Island Amazon warehouse worker, Christian Smalls, led a walkout in protest of deplorable, COVID-related workplace conditions. Amazon general counsel’s meeting notes said of Smalls: “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent to which the press wants to focus on him versus us, we will be in a much stronger PR position.” WOW! They not only dismissed Smalls as insignificant, but arrogantly condescended that an unpolished, tattooed young Black man could be used to unionize. Amazon fired him, but their strategy backfired, and the repercussions have been felt throughout the nation. In fact, recent surveys show that union membership is on the rise. Many well-established unions, such as the Teamsters, have seized upon the opportunity and are making the most of the momentum, using their organizing skills and resources to help enroll workers into a union. 

Even though Ralph Chaplin wrote the song “Solidarity Forever” in 1915 for the Industrial Workers of World War I, its refrain is as relevant and important today as it was more than 100 years ago: “When the union’s inspiration thru the worker’s blood shall run, there can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun, yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one, but the union makes us strong. Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.” The formal acknowledgment of the importance of workers came in 1894 when Congress created Labor Day by making the first Monday in September a national holiday. But it only did so in response to the death of 34 striking Pullman workers from the American Railway Union at the hands of U.S. Army soldiers and Marshals. Labor Day is very unique. It’s not so easy to find a holiday that crosses all religious, racial, ethnic and gender lines. Your political party, favorite color and years of education matter little. For sure, it’s not easy to find a holiday which most Americans celebrate in similar ways, parade or not—usually involving a hot dog or two. Yes, Labor Day is a rarity: A holiday we can all agree upon. And, here’s where labor unions shine their brightest. Just like our role in helping to build the middle class in America, we are both the ramrod and equalizer…and the bridge to the “American Dream.” We fight for the rights of workers while helping to create a level playing field where the “American Dream” is not the sole property of the corporate 1%. 

That’s why recognizing the efforts of workers—especially those in the public sector—is important. Certainly, it’s well-deserved recognition, but also a message to our elected leaders, political wannabes, big business and to the public at-large: You can bash us. You can try to bust us. But you need us. And, when you see the words “Union Made,” they also mean “Union Strong”—a  movement not just a moment. 

Gregory Floyd is president, Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large on the general board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters

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