Leaves are falling to the ground, but though the season has changed, the horrors and hardships of the pandemic have not. Its brutality continues to cost lives and livelihoods. It robs children of learning and playing with their friends. It instills a sense of fear and prohibits many from receiving needed medical care.

The pandemic has placed hunger, homelessness and hopelessness in the spotlight in a way that we have not seen for decades. It has also exposed the raw nerve of racial disparity which many thought—or hoped or pretended—was in America's rear-view mirror. Clearly, it is not.

The cause of this excessive and ongoing human suffering is complex and partisan. Despite differing views, there is a general consensus that national leadership is lacking.

But even without that leadership, there is one place that does shine through—the union workforce. Especially municipal workers, including the members of Teamsters Local 237. They are essential workers because their work is vital to everyone's health and well-being. 

They come to work despite the fact that seven months into this crisis, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has yet to put into place mandatory safety standards and guidelines.

Unions at Forefront

Historically, unions have been at the forefront of protecting working families in times of crisis and in more normal times. Today's fight is for personal protective equipment and heroes' compensation. From the 1880s, union activists have fought—and won—on abuses of workers' hours, pay, health benefits and safety conditions.

The examples of labor's victories are everywhere. In New York City, for example, School Safety Agents, who long suffered pay disparity with titles performing similar functions, won an historic settlement in a gender-based class action lawsuit against the City of New York brought by Local 237. We argued that it was no coincidence that 70% of School Safety Agents are women—mostly Blacks and Latinas—and about 70% of the higher paid workers are male. Over the four years of the litigation, Local 237 pulled out all stops, with countless rallies and many high-profile supporters, including Hazel Dukes, the president of the New York State Chapter of the NAACP, and Sonia Ossorio, President of the NYC Chapter of the National Organization for Women. One rally featured Lilly Ledbetter, who became became the face of the equal-pay-for-equal-work movement when she filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Goodyear in 1998 following her retirement, and months after an anonymous colleague slipped her a note indicating that she was being paid less than her male colleagues.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 2006 the Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against Ledbetter because she did not file her suit within 180 days of her first paycheck. Ledbetter held a special place in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's heart and, in a rare move, Justice Ginsberg read aloud her forceful dissenting opinion in the case, saying the majority ordered a "cramped interpretation" of the 180-day rule by deciding that each paycheck Ledbetter received wiped the slate clean for the discriminatory conduct. In her dissent, Ginsburg also told Congress, "the ball is in your court" to change the law.

Channel These Trailblazers

Within 18 months, a bipartisan Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Act—the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama. The recently deceased Justice Ginsburg was a trailblazer, in both life and death—with 45 years fighting for equal justice that included 483 decisions, being the first woman and Jew whose body lay in state in the Capitol.

The influence of Lilly Ledbetter on Local 237 cannot be overstated. At one rally, she told a crowd: "I've lived what you're going through. It's not only illegal, it's immoral. It's not just women, it's families that suffer. Retirement and Social Security are shortchanged. You can't catch up."

So, in this painful time of heartbreak and hardship, the question of "What do we do now?" is a challenge to channel these trailblazers and find a practical, meaningful way to move on. New York Times journalist Charles Blow summed it up when he recently wrote, "Don't let history record this moment as it recorded too many others. A time when good people did too little to confront wickedness and disaster." He ended his plea by quoting the philosopher, Edmund Burke, who wrote in 1770, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

The good men and women of New York City's municipal workforce are examples of heeding the warnings of Blow and Burke. They have hung in where many just hung out. They have made a difference in this scary, uncharted time. 


Mr. Floyd is President, Teamsters Local 237 and Vice President at Large on the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters


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