These workers value unions

As Labor Day nears, three see benefits from organized workforce

GHENT– Three local union members planned typical late-summer activities for Labor Day: a picnic, a birthday celebration, the county fair. Still, they hold great respect for the day.

“It’s the one day of the year when we appreciate the workers, especially the common workers, people who do the day-to-day operations,” said Kevin Novak, an x-ray technologist at Columbia Memorial Hospital.

“It honors people who have fought and died for the benefits we have today,” said Carl Roby Jr., who retired as a communications worker for CSX.

“Labor Day celebrates where labor has come from and the struggle that remains,” said Mark Dwyer, who teaches freshman math in the Chatham Central School District.

Mr. Novak and Mr. Roby were required to join a union when they began work at their respective jobs, and both joined willingly. Mr. Novak, of Stottville, has spent 36 years in the x-ray technology field, almost 29 of them at Columbia Memorial Hospital. With a B.A. degree in radiological health science, he worked his way up to management. For over 14 years he was a supervisor in hospital’s X-ray Department.

“Then I was downsized,” he said. “I was called into an office and told that my position had been eliminated and I had to go. I felt like I was thrown out.” Nevertheless, he stayed on at the hospital, working per diem as an x-ray technologist. No longer management, he joined the union. At that time, in 1996, it was Local 200 of SEIU (since merged with 1199, the union for health and human services workers).

In 1997 CMH had an opening on the 3 to 11 p.m. shift for a staff x-ray technologist, and Mr. Novak took it. He’s been offered management positions since, he said, but he’s not interested. “I enjoy working with patients, rather than worrying about scheduling.

“I could still lose my job,” he said, “but if I do, a certain protocol will be followed. Someone will be behind me. There might be educational opportunities, training for something else.”

Mr. Roby of Stockport is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. For 30 years he worked for the railroads — D&H, Conrail and then CSX after it took over Conrail. “We did fiber optics and computer work,” he said. “We dug ditches and climbed and built towers — if it could be called communications, we did it.”

For most of that time, Mr. Roby was the equivalent of a shop steward for communications workers based in Selkirk. As such he took part in national negotiations in 2007. “CSX was composed of some six former railroads,” he said, and the company needed a consolidated agreement with the various representatives.

It chose one union activist from each railroad company and flew them to Jacksonville, FL, for “a seat at the table,” Mr. Roby said. “Our only pay was for lost wages, and we got to experience the stress of negotiation. But that way there was no misinformation going back to the workers.

“I thank the union for helping to provide me with a decent standard of living, and I have nothing but praise for the way the union handles retirement,” he said.

Teachers in the CCSD are not required to join the Chatham Teachers Association, but nonmembers pay a representation fee, so Mr. Dwyer joined 23 years ago, the day the school district hired him, and he has been active ever since.

For 15 years he was a member of contract negotiating teams and was a building representative, the equivalent of a shop steward. In July he became president of the CTA, the union for the district’s teachers and teaching assistants, which is part of New York State United Teachers.

“The union’s role is changing,” said Mr. Dwyer, who lives in Chatham. “When I first joined, the focus was on contract negotiations, not teacher development.” Today, he said, the CTA is moving forward as a resource for all teachers, new and experienced, on its own and as part of the NYSUT Education and Learning Trust.

This is especially important, Mr. Dwyer said, “with the new teacher evaluation process. We want to take a proactive approach, and work with the district for good evaluation process. The bottom line is student success and achievement.”

Mr. Dwyer appreciates the slogan “Enjoy your weekend . . . thank a union.” But, he pointed out, civil rights, women’s rights and other large changes in the social fabric are also tied to labor movement.

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