Marian Phillips O’Neal: Unionism 101

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Florida Public Employees – The following is an unedited Letter to the Editor on the history and meaning of Unionism.



Unionism 101


On March 25, 1911 in New York City, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire. 123 women and 23 men died as a result of the doors being locked to the stairwell & exits. Many of them jumped to their death.

The fire led to improved safety standards through legislation. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was also formed as a result of fighting for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

Unions date back to Colonial and Revolutionary America. Men and women have died for the rights of the working class. In 1895 there were nine large unions ranked in America; Typographical, Cigar Makers, Railroad Trainmen, Locomotive Firemen, Iron Molders, Railway Conductors, Brick Layers, and Steel Workers. In 1953 some of the larger unions were; UAW, Teamsters, Steelworkers, Carpenters, Machinist, and Electrical Workers. Today, some of the largest unions are the NEA, SEIU, AFSCME, Teamsters, UFCW, and AFT.

Recently an editorial was published prompting me to write this editorial. Unions across America have been ridiculed recently through ignorance and indifference. Whether you are a supporter of unions or not, there are many reasons you may not know that are a result of a union. If you have are fortunate to have a job, you benefit from rights that have been fought for. Here is a list of reasons you may not have thought of.

Because of a union member; do you know that having the luxury of being off on weekends, having a 15 minute break during the day along with a lunch break is a direct result of a union fighting for this right? Having a paid vacation, Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Sick Leave, Social Security, Minimum Wage, Civil Rights Act/Title VII – prohibits employer discrimination, 8-hour a work day, Overtime pay, Child Labor Laws, Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA), 40-hour work week, Workers Compensation, Unemployment insurance, Pensions, Workplace safety standards and regulations, Employer health care insurance, Collective Bargaining rights for employees, Wrongful termination laws, Age Discriminations in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), Whistleblower termination laws, Employee Polygraph Act (EPPA)-prohibits employers from using a lie detector test on an employee, Veteran’s Employment and training Services (VETS), Compensation increases and evaluations (i.e. raises),  Sexual harassment laws, Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Holiday Pay, Employer dental, life and vision insurance, Privacy rights, Pregnancy and parental leave, Military leave, The right to strike, Public Education for children, Equal Pay Acts of 1963 & 2011 – requires employers pay men and woman equally for the same amount of work, Laws ending sweatshops in the United States.

I’m sure those of you who are reading this enjoy many of the above rights that a union member fought for. That is why I felt compelled to write this article to help bring the truth to light of the misconceptions many people have regarding unions. Unions are good and beneficial to the working class. The next time you hear someone criticize a union or union member, think about what benefits come from being a union member. Some of the working class are not fortunate to have a union in their work place, but they still enjoy the benefits of what has been fought for throughout history.

Jason Levi an accomplished musician and member of the American Federation of Musicians said “now I appreciate how unions help members. I wish I had joined the union from the very start. The benefits of belonging to a union really help both on and off the job. To be honest, I now can’t think of a single downside to belonging to the union.”

The Nassau County School Board is fortunate to have a Teachers Union (NTA) and Non-Instructional Support Staff Union (NESPA). Over the years, many accomplishments have been made as a result of the men and woman who have sat at the table and collectively bargained each year. Continually we bargain insurance, wages, contract language and safety. We take pride in these benefits and negotiated language on our jobs as we work daily with the students and staff.

John F. Kennedy summed up in a quote “our labor unions are not narrow self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.”

Bargaining and working together. Let me repeat, working together. Listening and brainstorming ideas. No one person thinks alike. It takes a combined effort with an open mind to obtain benefits and language through this process. It is a give and take. The process has worked for many years.

Thus, we have history that we can look back over the years to truly see the broad picture of just how important unions are.

As we approach the anniversary of the tragedy of the Triangle Shirt Waste Fire, let’s remember those who died on this tragic day. Let us also remember those who fought for the rights that we enjoy today. Through the Collaborative Bargaining process, we can accomplish better working conditions, better pay and safer working conditions on the job. Thank a union member today.


Marian Phillips O’Neal
President of The Nassau Educational Support Personnel Association
Florida AFL-CIO Exec Board
NEA LFT 2010
NEA & AFT Union member

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