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The Heart of Unionism: One Local Union’s Story of Solidarity

Many times in my life I have been proud to be a member of a Labor Union, specifically a third generation member of Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 19 in Philadelphia. We Sheet Metal Workers (AKA Tin Knockers, Tinners, etc.) have always had a long-standing reputation of being tough, no-nonsense types that don’t pull too many punches. Most importantly though, we always try to look out for each other, as those that came before us have in the past. This is at the very core of what it means to belong to a Union.

We hear it every day: “Unions have outlived their usefulness,” “What have they ever done for us?” and the infamous, “Unions steal from their members and are run by criminals.” That last blatant lie always gets me fired up.

Look throughout not just history, but our present, and you can see all the good Organized Labor has done (and continues to do) for this nation and the entire industrialized world. But for this piece I want to scale back the scope a bit and focus on what I feel is the perfect example of what a Local Union should be and how it takes care of its membership.

The Local I want to focus on is my own Union (SMWIA Local 19), not because of bias or because it and the membership is very near and dear to my heart, but because Local 19, its leadership and members, truly have given an example that all others can and should strive to follow.

First and foremost I want to mention that since the economic downturn began in 2008 unemployed members of the Local have held on to their health insurance for themselves and their families. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been laid off two days or two years, members won’t be left without insurance. You won’t get that with a corporation that holds profits above people every day of the week.

Now, to really hit home to some out there that may think this isn’t a big deal, I have a little story. One of my brothers in Local 19 who we’ll call Jim (not his real name) told me his wife went in for a checkup and ended up needing heart surgery. His wife made it through and is currently recuperating; they caught it just in time and thank goodness for that. But what if they didn’t have that insurance? When this all happened, Jim had been laid off for over a year and a half. Anywhere else he and his wife would have been left out in the cold and things could have gone down a much different path. She may have received care, but in no way, shape or form could it have compared to the care she did receive through the Union’s plan.

That’s just one story of many I’m sure that exist. This wouldn’t have been possible without the forethought of past leaders within the Local and the membership itself voting to properly fund our healthcare.

I recently had a chance to sit and talk with Sheet Metal Workers Local 19’s President/Business Manager Gary Masino and we discussed the various good Local 19 has done for members that have been unemployed long term. It doesn’t stop at healthcare; the Local has a fund set up that supplements unemployment benefits for one full year when a member is laid off, this is known as the SUB Fund, which really is a great thing if you’ve ever had to live off of a UC check.

In past years when unemployment was low, members would receive a portion of the money back that they paid into this fund. But in recent times with unemployment being as high as it has been, members have waived that reimbursement to facilitate SUB Fund extensions for members that have exhausted their SUB. Each extension gives those members six weeks of SUB checks for that quarter of the year. These extensions have been approved for the past seven quarters since 2009. Mr. Masino put it best, “This is a Brother supplementing another Brother.” And to me that is the essence of what a Union should be.

As the years went on and the construction industry took a real hit, many of Local 19’s members started running out of their Unemployment Benefits. Something had to be done to help these members that have been caught up by an economic downturn that has seriously hurt the working families of our nation. Local 19 took action; several ideas were tossed around and finally a solution to fund help for these members was reached. Fifty cents per working hour would be steered from going into the Health and Welfare to this new fund, but before anything could be implemented, the membership had to approve. At the April 2011 Union Meeting, the membership voted overwhelmingly for the resolution to create the Supplemental Exhaustion Benefit.

Now, those that run out of unemployment are given a weekly check from this new fund. While it isn’t as much as a UC check, it gives members something to feed their families with and to help pay the mortgage. Also, members that run out of UC benefits are put on a priority list at the hiring hall so that they can get back to work sooner than those of us that still have our Unemployment and rightly so.

This past year the Local gave out one-hundred-dollar Visa gift cards to members that were out of Unemployment; once before Thanksgiving and once before Christmas, because those members more than any of us needed a little help around the holidays. But then something happened that truly brought our Local Union together in a way not seen in many years.

The retirees have a meeting every month, it’s a chance for them to get together catch up and stay active in the Local and the Labor Movement. After the November meeting, Mr. Masino was presented with a check from the Retirees Club for a sizable amount. The retirees had taken up a collection and they wanted it to go to members who were out of Unemployment for the Holidays. A couple of days later at the weekly staff meeting President Masino spoke to the Business Agents and Organizers about the selfless gift the retirees had left with him for members in need. Without hesitation all of Local 19’s officials gave generously to this worthy cause.

This further inspired President Masino to go to the Local’s executive board and task them to establish a Holiday Fund and find a way to start a collection for our long time unemployed members. And so they did. The board came up with a collection plan where Stewards would go around and collect whatever working members could spare.

At the next monthly Union meeting President Masino announced the Holiday Fund to the membership to tremendous applause and several standing ovations. Letters about taking collection up for the Fund went out to all Stewards along with emails to the general membership and postings via social networking to spread the word. This spirit swept through the Local like a wildfire, members and retirees gave with such enthusiasm that it didn’t take long before the Leadership could see that this could touch many members that have been struggling.

While I sat and talked with Mr. Masino, he showed me a letter from a retiree’s wife. Her husband was a Steward for the Local for many years and had passed away, but she wanted to give something back to the Union that gave so much to her family. President Masino had received other letters similar in nature from retirees and their families.

It really is poignant that the retirees were the ones that thought up the idea for the Holiday Fund. As Mr. Masino commented, “Somebody had to start it, who better than our retirees.” And I responded, “They still continue to teach us all.”

At the January Union meeting, President Masino announced to the membership that Local 19’s Holiday Fund had exceeded expectations. We were able to reach out to two hundred and twenty members and their families throughout the Local who have been long-term unemployed or without Unemployment Benefits. All those that selflessly donated to help our Brothers and Sisters during the Holiday Season should feel proud; they have absolutely done a service. We will all get through these hard times together as we always have in the past.

Times are tough in the construction industry. Unemployment ranges from forty to sixty percent, region to region and this is the industry as a whole not just the unionized sector; non-union construction workers and their families are hurting just as bad. Economic downturns like this recent one we’re experiencing makes many of us in a Union truly thankful to belong to an organization that focuses on taking care of those members that have hit hard times.

If we didn’t have this support structure in place, I shudder to think what could have been for my own family over the last two years. When Union Brothers and Sisters come together in good times and bad, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish. That is one of many reasons why I am PROUD to be a member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 19.

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Todd Farally | Sheet Metal Workers Local 19

 

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