Braille Monitor                                                March 2013

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The Role of Labor in My Life and in the Progress of the Organized Blind Movement

by Ivan Weich

Ivan WeichFrom the Editor: Ivan Weich is president of the National Association of Blind Public Employees and the chapter president of the Kitsap County Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington. He also works full-time for the federal government. As part of his job he is a national union representative. Last year he was elected national fair practices and affirmative action coordinator for the American Federation of Government Employees District Eleven, which covers eight states of the Pacific Northwest. His union represents over six hundred thousand federal employees and employees of the District of Columbia.

It is clear that Ivan feels passionately about his union work, an emotion any of us who feel dedicated and passionate about what we do and why we do it will have no trouble understanding. No matter one’s position on the contentious issues that sometimes divide labor and management, all of us can be proud that a blind person has found yet another place to shine in the diverse workforce of America. This is what he says:

Before I proceed, I want to say that this article is about the U word—“union.” I know that some people do not like to talk about unions, but we have to discuss them here. Unions are an institution in this country, and, like the Federation, unions are here to stay. As a matter of fact, the Federation has a great deal to be thankful for from the unions. Dr. Jernigan reminded us on many occasions that we in the National Federation of the Blind have the right to select our representatives to present our views and grievances, and we have the right to assemble peaceably to air them. These are the same rights given to unions.

When I first joined the Federation in the 1980s, the NFB was referred to by some as "the evil ones," "that militant organization," and "that bunch of radicals." Fortunately many have now come to understand what we have known all along: that the NFB is an incredible organization with integrity, clout, and respect.

Before my government career I worked in private industry, where we had no unions and where I was treated quite unfairly. Even so, back then my impression of unions was dismal. All I had to go on were the images of union picketers disrupting work, stories about arson and assaults for which they were blamed, and service delays during strikes which of course were the fault of those greedy people pushing for more and more. Sometimes I made legitimate complaints about service delays, only to be told by company representatives that they were because of the union.

On the first day of my federal career, I took my loyalty oath and minutes later was addressed by the union steward. It felt awkward and struck me as ironic that first I had taken an oath not to strike against the government and then I was addressed by the employees' union. It made no sense to me; I didn't think we could have a union because we couldn't strike, which was what I thought the union did. Over time I have learned that we can accomplish a great deal without a strike or work stoppage.

After two years on the job with the government, I went to my union steward to file a grievance because my supervisor and manager had passed me up for a temporary assignment in a field office. After the steward called my manager on it, I got a duty assignment to an office near my home. I was so happy that I started assisting the union and then became a union steward. Six months later I was asked by my local president to prepare an appellate brief to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, since my background and training were in legal research and writing. About ninety days later we received a decision on the appeal, and the Commission ruled in our favor.

In 1994 my local president asked me if I would be willing to serve as a union official. I thought about it and said yes. My family kept telling me that I was making a big mistake. I told them that I had not been getting anywhere without the union, and, if I did not speak up for myself and others, I would always be beaten down, and so would others.

My union responsibilities include meeting with employees, determining their issues, and developing the evidence. I also prepare a reply to any proposal from management. My work is similar to what is done by an attorney, but of course I cannot give legal advice. By 1999 I had become the secretary/treasurer of my local, I was being considered for national representative, and I was doing the full range of union representation. In November of 1999 I had to give all of that up when I transferred to Washington State to care for my father, who was dying of cancer.

In my nine-year absence from union leadership, I still kept up on the laws that affect union representation and federal employment. In 2007 I was elected as a delegate to my new local in Washington State, and I was a unit delegate to the Central Labor Council in my town. In 2010 I was elected as sergeant at arms of my local and resumed union work almost immediately. In 2011 I was asked to run for fair practices affirmative action coordinator for District Eleven. I was surprised because I thought I had to wait five years before I could be nominated for anything. I gave it some thought, ran for the position at the district caucus, and was sworn into service minutes after the results were announced.

My position requires serving as a resource person for equal employment opportunity and affirmative action issues. Doing the job involves teleconferences, meetings, travel, and time away from my usual work. In some cases I make referrals to our union's attorneys for assistance. As part of my job I provide training on basic federal EEO law and representation. My position puts me on the national Human Rights Committee for the union. In this group we focus on issues of human rights, civil rights, and worker rights.

In order to do my job, I have several alternative skills. First, I use adaptive technology. I have an iPhone so I can stay up-to-date on my email. I also have a backup system in case the computer is down and needs its Prozac. That backup is an At-A-Glance 8.5x11 appointment book to keep track of appointments, meetings, and travel.

When I travel to other cities, arrangements are made ahead of time for a local union officer or staffer to pick me up at the train station or the Dog House [the Greyhound station]. When I work out of the national office, I am provided a computer with adaptive software, and, when attending national-office-sponsored training, I am assigned an intern who serves as my reader. Handouts, forms, and worksheets are produced in large print for me. Most of the time I book my own travel through our contracted travel agent.

Since I have been in office, we have made significant strides on behalf of disabled members, staffers, employees, delegates, and representatives. We are introducing two resolutions this year at our national convention. The first one is to establish a disabled employees coalition. The second is to ensure that materials are made available in alternative formats (including Braille) for attendees, delegates, staffers, representatives, officers, and employees when they attend conventions, caucuses, training classes, and national meetings.

Organized labor is like any large organization or employer—we need good people to work for us as employees. Some positions require an advanced degree and/or professional license as in the case of an attorney, accountant, or economist. Some positions require a four-year degree in journalism, finance, labor studies, human resources, or political science. Some positions are program-specific, and an applicant must have both education and experience in a special field such as EEO or health and safety. Unions also need office professionals and secretaries. They hire organizers for membership and mobilization. These are sales jobs requiring one to meet goals for recruiting new members and helping locals retain them.

Like the NFB, our union has national resources that are generously shared with the local labor organizations. National representatives work in each district to help locals with representational issues. These include helping to organize elections to determine whether employees want to join a union and handling disputes that sometimes occur during those elections. Representatives also provide basic steward training, advanced litigation training for seasoned stewards, and leadership training for local leaders. To become a national representative, one must start out as a local officer and then be selected after years of experience in the diverse demands placed on union officials. Just as in the Federation, union employees serve at the pleasure of the national president.

The best way to compete for union work is to master your union job. All employees must have a strong interest in organized labor. No matter what position one occupies, part of the job is selling the union to a prospective member. So sold are we on collective bargaining that even employees of unions are themselves represented by a union.

If you are interested in organized labor and if you are in college and studying labor, law, accounting, journalism, or political science, you can inquire about internship programs at any union’s national office. You can also check with your adviser or school placement office for union opportunities in your area.

Being a union officer is no popularity contest. A good union officer must be able to 1) manage a local in order to represent the needs of all covered employees, 2) lead in a fair and equitable manner (including financial management), 3) be a leader, 4) be a good listener, 5) be willing to challenge questionable decisions of the employer, 6) be willing to sacrifice your time and resources to benefit your covered employees, and 7) be able to sell your union to potential members. The parallel is clear; one could easily insert Federation in place of union in this list and it would be every bit as appropriate.

The National Federation of the Blind has benefited a great deal from organized labor. Aside from the Labor Day holiday, the creation of the Social Security Act, and the overtime law, the Federation has benefited from the traditions the union has established and perfected to communicate with the public. Public meetings, rallies, pickets, and the right to present our views were all made acceptable by organized labor, and, when called upon to take our message to the public, the Federation has made good use of these tools. Labor too has been influenced by the National Federation of the Blind. It has become an excellent career opportunity for talented people, including those who are disabled. As the blind become ever more visible in the work of the unions, we become more integrated into the mainstream of society, demonstrating our energy, our competitive spirit, and our social conscience. I think this is what our founders had in mind, and I am grateful to play a part in our ongoing struggle to gain the equality of opportunity and the security to which we commit ourselves each time we recite the Federation pledge.

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