Recognize our strength in numbers

Labor Relations Report 

My favorite month of the year has arrived. It’s not because the New York Jets were tied for first place (as of Sept. 5), but because it starts with Labor Day weekend.

Sept. 5 also marked the 140th anniversary of the first Labor Day Parade in New York City, which was the brainchild of Paterson native Matthew Maguire. He was a machinist and held the position of secretary in the Central Labor Movement. The first Labor Day Parade was held in NYC in 1882.

Matthew Maguire sent out invitations to thousands of union members to attend. He and his wife rode in the first carriage at the head of the parade. The Maguires shared the carriage with Henry Ward Beecher, the famous social reformer, abolitionist preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Matthew Maguire’s interest in social reform extended to active socialist politics as well as labor unions. He served as an alderman in Paterson and ran for vice president in 1896 on the National Socialist Labor Party ticket. There is speculation that his politics are the reason he hasn’t received his due acclaim.

New Jersey was one of the first five states in 1887 to pass legislation, authored by Maguire, making Labor Day a state holiday. A number of other states passed similar legislation, and on June 28, 1894, Congress passed a bill designating the first Monday in September both as National Labor Day and as a national holiday.

On this holiday, I had dinner with an old friend, and the discussion naturally led to unions and the protections granted by membership in a labor organization. My buddy, who will remain
nameless because his employer would fire him for the content of our talk, worked for the same company that I did 37 years ago. I worked in security, but he was a union member in maintenance. He often expressed reverence for the shop steward, who stood up to the supervisors in defense of their treatment of employees. Their discussions occasionally became heated, and I
was called to stand by because the shop steward was “losing his s#!t.” I didn’t know the shop steward very well, but I could see that he was passionate and animated. I was very young, naïve and my cerebral cortex was not yet fully formed, so I silently agreed with the bosses. I thought they must be right, since the company had hired them to be in charge. I should note that I
started there as a college summer job. With contentious negotiations expected in the fall, I was offered a part-time position because I looked like I could fight.

As time went on, I was in a position to observe that employees were not treated equally. Different standards were set, and undesirable assignments went to employees who were out of favor with any or all of the supervisors. As the proverbial fly on the wall, I learned that most of the disputes came down to a battle: terms and conditions of employment vs. managerial prerogative. These two heavyweights have been brawling in workplaces since the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938.

At my old job, the contract reigned supreme and the shop steward knew every article, section and clause. I noticed that he never actually “lost his s#!t” because he never lost anything. The arguments always ended with him outlining what he would say in his grievance to HR and the supervisors capitulating because they misconstrued what rights management actually had, according to the contract.

After reminiscing about the good old days, my buddy began to express his frustration with his current employer. He works in a place that specializes in luxury retail sales. Many of his colleagues have a commission-based compensation package. Most have an hourly rate that is agreed upon at the time of hiring. There are very few complaints about compensation, but the
details of safety violations and other substandard labor practices that the FLSA was intended to eliminate were shocking. The employer’s attitude seems to imply that they pay their employees enough to be willing to die to get those products sold. He has been talking to others about unionizing, but he fears that he will be fired for trying to improve the workplace. Recent representation attempts at major retailers like Amazon, Starbucks, Walmart and others suggest that his fear is well-grounded. It is impossible to be a leader when others are afraid to follow.

In April, Amazon workers voted to unionize, marking the first successful organizing effort against staunch opposition from the retail colossus. The effort was led by Chris Smalls, who had been fired for doing exactly what my friend has been doing at his place for his coworkers. I was somewhat disappointed that only 55 percent of the employees voted in favor of unionizing,
although the complaints expressed by Smalls were verified by a large majority of employees. They were apparently afraid to take a stand to improve their own conditions without guarantees that they wouldn’t be fired.

In the public sector, we have the additional protection of the NJ Employer-Employee Relations Act, and retaliation for trying to organize a unit of employees is against the law. In fact, public
employees “shall be protected in the exercise of, the right, freely and without fear of penalty or reprisal, to form, join and assist any employee organization or to refrain from any such activity.”
Many of us take that for granted, and it’s a shame.

This September, as we gather in the Bahamas for our annual convention, please take a moment to recognize the strength in numbers that we possess. As individuals, we are at extreme risk when we go to work. As an association, we have the power to protect ourselves and the public. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be a member of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association with all of you.

Go Jets!