September 5, 2006

Workers Talk Union at Labor Day Picnic

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Classes may have been in session up on the Hill yesterday, but by the shores of Cayuga Lake, Labor Day was observed and celebrated. Children played on a fire truck; picnickers ate barbecue, watermelon and Cornell Dairy ice cream; and a folk band sang labor songs about the Haymarket riot, the historic demonstration for an eight-hour workday that turned violent in Chicago in 1886.
Local politicians, activists, workers and labor leaders including some of the 1,000 unionized Cornell employees came together yesterday to talk union at the local division of the AFL-CIO’s annual picnic. The Ithaca School District was named the Midstate Central Labor Council’s (MCLC) “Goat of Labor” for an ongoing contract dispute with a teaching assistants’ union, and recent graduate Nathan Shinagawa ’05 won the Friend of Labor Award for work he did over the summer advocating for healthcare. Power company worker Jim Rappone won an award named after labor activist and folk hero Joe Hill that is given to a union member “who sticks their neck out in solidarity with their fellow workers.”
Shinagawa, who at 22 is the youngest-ever member of the Tompkins County Legislature, was recognized for his support of the Fair Share Health Care initiative, an AFL-CIO supported piece of legislation that would require employers of more than 100 workers outside the manufacturing and agricultural sectors to provide health insurance for their employees. The Tompkins County Legislature passed a resolution in the initiative’s favor and the NYS Assembly passed the legislation, but it died in the Senate.
Upon receiving the award, Shinagawa spoke to the gathered crowd, ending by leading a chant. “There ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop!” he shouted.
Shinagawa says he is excited and even inspired by his experience in local politics and getting to know the people and places of Tompkins County.
Jim Dennis, one of Shinagawa’s colleagues on the Tompkins County Legislature, took Shinagawa to watch race cars over the summer at the Black Rock Speedway in Dundee, N.Y. Mary Coles, who represents the first district on the Ithaca Common Council, is coauthoring an op-ed with Shinagawa advocating for a universal single-payer healthcare system in New York State. State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton has asked him to manage her reelection campaign. Labor organizers greet him with handshakes and hugs, and citizens recognize him in the parking lot.
“That’s one thing I’m really working on, remembering people’s names.” Shinagawa said after greeting a supporter yesterday.
“Every day I go home and go through names and faces of people I’ve met that day.”
“That guy had his name on his jacket,” joked companion Michelle Wong ’05. “It should have been pretty obvious.”
“Well you never know – sometimes people wear bowling shirts or something just to be stylish,” Shinagawa said.
This fall, Shinagawa plans to work with the Tompkins County Workers’ Center to agitate for a single-payer universal healthcare system in New York State. Along with Peter Meyers, an organizer with the Workers’ Center, and volunteer Danielle Bangs ’08, Shinagawa plans to organize at least 500 people to march from the Commons to Bailey Hall, where they will demonstrate before the gubernatorial debate scheduled there for Sept. 26. Their goal is to pressure the election’s presumptive winner, NYS Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, to enact health care legislation within his first 100 days in office. A single-payer system would create a nonprofit corporation that would act as an insurance provider statewide.
Elsewhere at the picnic, activists and politicians mingled, ate and talked union. Buttons bearing the legend “Wal Mart: Always Low Wages” and shirts that said “Unions: the folks who brought you the weekend” were popular. Attendees also included members of the Service Employees International Union, the red-shirted Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) and immigration rights activists clad in white tee shirts inked with their movement’s rallying cry, popularized during last year’s spring protests: “Ningún ser humano es illegal,” or “No human is illegal.”
Michael A. Arcuri, the Oneida County District Attorney who is the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress in New York’s 24th district, mingled with union organizers, citizens and press.
“I get a real good sense that people want change,” Arcuri said. “They’ve had enough.” Addressing Republican critics of his support for increased spending on social programs, Arcuri said, “Where’s the money coming from for the war?”
Arcuri said he supports bringing the National Guard home from Iraq by the end of 2006 and the troops home by 2007.
There is, however, a softer side to the Arcuri campaign. His website bears the slogan, “When you know Michael Arcuri, you’ll want him representing you in Congress,” and his ads talk about everyday issues like jobs.
The candidate’s mother, Betty, 70, even made sure one picnicker received each in a set of four Michael A. Arcuri baseball cards printed up for the campaign.
Arcuri also underscored his relationship with labor and said that his sister is the business manager for an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local.
“She always says to me, ‘Don’t forget, you may be my brother by blood, but you’re not my brother in the union,’” Arcuri said.
Cornell staff make up a large part of the local labor movement. Brian Goodell is president of the MCLC and also works as a head custodian on North Campus.
According to Goodell, about 1,000 service and maintenance workers at Cornell are organized in the United Auto Workers Local 2300, a group that, according to Terry Sharpe, a Cornell food service worker and president of the UAW local, has about 1,300 total members. The local also represents librarians, TCAT employees and other area workers.
Cornell staffers first organized under the UAW in 1981, and the local will celebrate its 25th anniversary in October. Goodell, who first joined the union when he worked for TCAT, said that the Cornell employees chose UAW because of its democratic practices.
Goodell, also a past president of the local, said that as he became more involved in union organizing, he enjoyed it more and more.
“It’s in your blood, I guess,” he said.
Rappone, the recipient of the Joe Hill award, was recognized for alerting his union about an abusive boss.
Rappone reported a manager who had been boasting about planning to fire several workers upon his arrival at a new job at a plant in Syracuse. Local leaders contacted union organizers in Syracuse who agitated to prevent the firings.
“I only did what any union man should do for any other union man,” Rappone said in his acceptance speech. Then, in celebration, he lit a cigar.