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November 2016


Reflections on the NYSUT Community College Conference from a history major’s perspective
Michael Iasilli


The history of the Gideon Putman inspired the author's reflections on his conference experience. (photo by Michael Iasilli)

Pulling into the Gideon Putnam hotel in Saratoga Springs, I marveled at the autumnal utopia that stood before me while the golden leaves flew all around. The vintage-colonial style hotel was nestled within the confines of an expansive tree grove. This image along with the crisp fall air prompted me to reflect on the Battle of Saratoga, 1777, a critical turning point in the American Revolution as it yielded French support of the American resistance against the British Empire.

As a doctoral student studying the causes, effects and trends of revolutionary movements, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the resistance pushed by the revolutionaries against British repression, and the labor activists who resist repressive workplace practices. Early rebels sought self-determination, political sovereignty and the pursuit of happiness. The resistance continues with organized labor resisting unjust practices that hurt the working class. By advocating for fair wages, security, inclusion and a voice, union activists promote a critical provision in the Constitution, “the pursuit of happiness.” In fact, the struggle for labor recognition and rights has long been a challenge since industrialization. Historically, much of the abuse workers faced would be equally matched by a fortified resistance against the tyranny of elitism.

The history of unions in America is a revolutionary history. Pioneers such as Mother Jones, Eugene V Debs, Frances Perkins, and César Chávez led the cause. These important figures were up against draconian union busting from bosses who hired private military organizations like Pinkerton to silence them. Too often, the history of labor is cast aside as illegitimate, mobbish and disobedient. However, the formation of unions in America manifested as a form of organized resistance against concentration of power, exploitation and oppression in the workplace.

The American Revolution aimed to achieve the same. It cultivated spy rings and troop gatherings of different sorts to rebel against despotic British officials and loyalists. The Culper Spy Ring offers one example. Though most of us would like to think of our early history as a period of galvanized transition from monarchy to democracy, it was actually quite disorderly. The struggle to move away from monarchy was difficult and required intense unified mobilization, skillful observation and attuned care for the common people.

At the NYSUT Community College Conference, the section of the workshop on labor history led by Dr. Daniel Levinson Wilk, professor of American history at the Fashion Institute of Technology, reinforced my notion of the revolutionary character of unions. In analyzing traditional aspects of organized labor such as the fight for fair wages, appropriate working conditions and mitigating the wealth gap, he noted that two critically important pieces make up the union cause: solidarity and protection from unfettered capitalism.

To his first point, solidarity is what keeps a united front against the oppressors. The period of industrialization led to significant fractures in society where once strong bonds among groups existed. The new demands placed on society during industrialization reversed the sense of connection with others, reshaping lines between race, religion, class and occupation. The need for solidarity is critical now more than ever before.

His latter point emphasized how unions “save” capitalism from crisis. Some in the audience were critical of his choice of using “save.” Since capitalism’s boom-and-bust cycles are responsible for many of the financial disasters this country has endured, then why are unions looking to “save” the system? He elaborated on how they are correct in their disenchantment with capitalism but highlighted how unions are important to the survival of companies, and the encouragement they receive from unions to sell mass quantities at lower consumer cost. Dr. Levinson Wilk encourages union members to place themselves in the current state of society and ponder ways to affect change.

Everyone in the room became introspective, reflecting on their role in the union and how they can apply their activism in a way that meets their understanding of the world. Participants discussed how the union can improve, mitigate internal challenges and balance their transactional and transformative actions.

During the other workshops at the conference, participants discussed how locals can broaden their influence and gain participation from younger cohorts. There is an undercurrent of worry regarding the lack of participation from potential members, as the longevity of the union is an issue of concern. Many public employees remain unaware of how unions are influential to their well being. Unions provide a number of benefits such as solidarity among fellow workers, ensuring collective bargaining rights, providing affordable health coverage, fighting for social justice, making available professional development opportunities, etc.

Roberta Elins, President of United College Employees of Fashion Institute of Technology (UCE of FIT), speaks during a workshop at the NYSUT Community College Conference as various FA members listen. (photo by Kevin Peterman)

More specifically, academic unions have the ability to improve our classrooms, empower our faculty to achieve more and promote a sense of togetherness among fellow academics in the college. As Roberta Elins, NYSUT’s Higher Education Member of the Year, stated, a positive space for our faculty equates to an effective learning experience for our students. Thus, we must reach out to new members so that we can foster these positive ideas and continue to improve our future.

The presence of the past was quite apparent at the Gideon Putnam. The history of organized labor is a history of revolutionary struggle. The American Revolution reminds us to fight for our principles and resist oppression. The ideals of democracy and equality are the core of unions beliefs. The labor movement has the power to keep these principles alive so that all can enjoy the pursuit of happiness as it was intended by our founders. We must never forget where we came from, as the past molds who we are to become.

To our sisters and brothers, vive la révolution