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September 06, 2017

The Wisconsin Labor History Society – Essay Winner

Union plays critical role in family’s life

The Wisconsin Labor History Society sponsors an annual contest for high school students about the role unions play in our lives. This year’s winner shows how vital unions have been to his family.

By Erik Hansen Cardona

As a Latino growing up in Shorewood, Wisconsin, I’ve seen unions play a critical role in the life of my family and community. As a result of inflammatory words spoken against Mexicans and those of Muslim faith in the recent presidential campaign, many immigrants face the future in fear. Unions have helped by continuing to support them in their union jobs and even, in some cases, reaching out to them to offer advice and other assistance.

My father is an immigrant who came to this country from Guatemala, a nation where people have been jailed or even killed for union activism. Once in the United States, he became a drafter and a welder and joined the United Auto Workers (UAW).

His first union job in the United States followed non-union jobs as painter, landscaper, maintenance assistant and drafter. When he got hired as a welder in a union shop, it was the first time he had a job with a decent wage. When Siemens, the company he worked for, moved to the Sun Belt, my dad was laid off and the union helped him to connect with HIRE Center in Milwaukee and retrain for a new trade.

My father was injured on the job, but through Workers Compensation, a program that unions helped start, he was able to undergo knee surgery and get physical therapy.

My father is impressed with the role unions played in establishing OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Act), which helps workers stay safe on the job. “Employers can’t only think about the bottom line,” my father said. “They must provide safety equipment and think about workers’ lives as well.”

My mother was a reporter in Washington D.C. and became part of The Newspaper Guild, where she was a union steward. She worked for a small national news service, but she and her fellow journalists benefitted from being part of the same union as The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun, who had talented negotiators.

Now she is an English as a Second Language instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), and a proud member of Local 212 of the American Federation of Teachers.

How have unions changed her life? “In many countries, work-ing as a journalist or a teacher doesn’t put you in the middle class. Here, thanks to unions, my family can own a home, take vacations, visit museums, go to the occasional movie, and have sick leave when we need it,” she said.

My mother said that unions played an important role in the civil rights movement and still work to prohibit employer discrimination.

When her ESL immigrant students expressed concerns after hearing political rhetoric in the presidential campaign, she was impressed that Local 212 organized a meeting that included a lawyer and counselor who took questions from students.

“Students from Mexico, Lebanon and Colombia bravely stood up and spoke of their fears. They were moved that it was the teachers’ union that wanted to know their stories and offered assistance,” my mother said. The union also helped circulate a student petition urging school officials to prohibit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers from entering MATC without administration approval and, in this way, protect undocumented students.

When his wife, my aunt, also a teacher, was a young mother of five children, she said thanks to the MTEA, she carried excellent health and dental insurance for her family. Their belief n unions and what they stand for inspired my aunt and uncle to go to Madison in 2011 to protest against the enactment of Act 10 that took away collective bargaining rights for public employees. “I basically went to lend another body to the 100,000-plus that were there,” my uncle explained. “It was cold, but it felt great. We all were there for one purpose and that was to show solidarity — being one voice against what we felt was overreach by the Wisconsin government.”

Erik Hansen Cardona is a 9th grade student at Shorewood High School

Reprinted from Union Labor News

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