For those alive today it’s difficult to imagine the American workforce without unions. They not only represent trades, such as brick layers and electrical workers, and teachers, but there are also unions for actors, postal workers, air traffic controllers and many other professions.
But many question their role in the workplace. They say years ago unions were necessary because there were few laws that protected employees. Others, however, say they are still needed to protect workers’ rights.
One of the most famous unions is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Founded in 1903, it is one of the world’s largest unions, with 1.4 million members. As it says on the Teamster website, it represents “everyone from A to Z – from airline pilots to zookeepers.” Some other industries that have members in the union include food processing, rail, freight, and motion picture and theatrical trade.
According to the Teamsters Constitution, the union’s main purpose is to educate and organize workers so they can have a better standard of living and have a voice in the workplace.
John Sagona, 45, of Ozone Park, is a 25-year member of the union. He is also a second generation Teamster. His father was in Local 553 from the early 60s until the mid-80s. Sagona has been a member of the same Local, which represents workers in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County, since he began driving fuel oil delivery trucks for Petro.
Whether or not his father was a former member, he still would have joined the Teamsters, said Sagona.
“The unions can protect you,” he said.
That protection includes making sure members have medical benefits, pensions and paid vacations.
Unions are beneficial for both employees and bosses because benefits and better pay means harder, more dedicated workers, said Sagona.
Health insurance is a major reason that father of two Joseph Reilly, 45, of Bellerose, is a member of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, a regional council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Reily is a 13-year member of Local 45, which covers Queens and some of Nassau County. He is also recording secretary of Local 45’ s executive board. Previously he was in the Teamsters electrical union.
When I didn’t work union I had no benefits,” he said. “I just saw the benefits the union members were getting and [they] didn’t compare to non-union,” he continued.
Those benefits follow him to each job whether it’s doing sheet rocking and framing at a school or installing cabinets, said Reily.
One union criticism that he has heard is that they are anti-American, but unions are part of America’s roots, he said.
The 13 colonies under British rule were like workers before unions, said Reilly, but then they united and fought for their rights.