It was a year ago that we celebrated the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I am honored to be sworn in as president of Local 237 so near that historic date. I want to thank all those who helped me reach this point, and I want to welcome our new trustee, Curtis Scott, and new business agents Charlie Cotto and Carol Harry. Though my inauguration is not as momentous an occasion, I wish it to inspire a similar sense of hopefulness about the future among our members.
It is also a sobering reminder, however, that President Obama needs our help more than ever. As the Senate election in Massachusetts shows, many people have begun to question Obama’s agenda. Certainly, at times his administration has made mistakes, but it does not change the fact that he is strongly committed to empowering the labor movement. As IBT President Jimmy Hoffa said before he swore in our Executive Board, the Teamsters were the first union to support Obama and he has been a loyal friend ever since. His success is our success, and so we must help him succeed.
Our efforts are more important now than ever. Unions are being attacked from all sides. Private sector institutions, so-called good government groups and government officials are calling for layoffs and givebacks. Many say that union benefits and health insurance are too generous, but they forget that we sacrificed significant pay raises over the years in order to maintain them. Through the history of this country, labor has been continually challenged. Now is one of those times. But as our Political Director Pat Stryker put it, “We are strong because we are together.”
The next several months will be a critical time in Obama’s presidency, the labor movement and the history of this country. Congress continues to work on reforming the country’s health care and financial industries, making decisions that could shape the economy and our well-being for generations. Unions must continue to urge Obama to work harder to improve the job market and help Americans find affordable homes. We encourage him to reconnect with the working people who supported his election.
On the local front, we face our own challenges. Governor Paterson announced a budget that cuts as much as a billion dollars of aid from the city. Mayor Bloomberg asked in his State of the City address for $300 million in union givebacks. Some people have argued that the economy is on the rebound, and that may be true. Unfortunately, the force of the economic collapse will be felt in government budgets for years to come. As this year goes forward, Local 237 must be on guard to protect against threats to our livelihood.
To prosper, we cannot be silent. We must speak and speak loudly. That is why I and other Local 237 leaders recently hit the airwaves to defend our rights. In a series of radio ads and as co-host of a radio program, we spoke out against the New York Civil Liberties Union’s slandering of our school safety agents and for the need to save union jobs and benefits.
A vital aspect of our power, however, comes from the polls. As I have said before, we must show we can deliver the vote in order to have real influence in City Hall, Albany and Washington. This year it will be even more important to vote, as many of our strongest supporters are expected to have difficult elections.
We saw the results of our political efforts in January, when the Teamsters and other unions scored a major victory in the health care battle. Bringing health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans is a noble goal, but we must do it the right way. Congress wanted to pay for at least part of the expense with a tax on “Cadillac” health care benefits, a 40 percent charge on costly insurance plans. Many believe this tax will only affect the rich, who can afford premium health care and the taxes that come with it, but the truth is it will actually hurt many hard-working union members as well. President Hoffa and the nation’s other top union leaders were successful in pushing off the tax to a date far in the future, when it would not harm us. I look forward to more of these victories throughout the year.
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who showed us how our unity can help change the world. It was humbling to be honored at City Hall for the City Council’s Martin Luther King Day celebration this month, which again reminded me what we can accomplish together. We learned that lesson a year ago when Barack Obama was elected President. I can only imagine the achievements next year will bring for us.