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PEP May 2006
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Latinoamericana
     
  Public Employee Press

Progress for immigrants starts at home in DC 37

   
  DC 37 leads
the way in providing services to our members from the far corners of the globe.
 

By LILLIAN ROBERTS
Executive Director
District Council 37, AFSCME

Around the holidays in December, as the union gets ready to help numerous members in need, I also ask myself whether I have done enough personally to make someone’s life a little better.

And when it comes to the problems faced by immigrants in the United States today, I feel the same way. It’s important to speak out on the big national issues that have brought millions of people — including many of our members — into the streets in recent months. But we have to do more — both as individuals and as a union.

Here’s an example of what one person can do: After the 9/11 tragedy, a Jewish staffer phoned his Muslim friends in the union and said, “You may be facing a lot of slurs and hostility because of this. If you have to go anyplace where people might give you a hard time, call me and I will walk with you. If you need any kind of help at all, just call me.” It’s vital for every one of us to do our part personally to extend a helping hand to the newcomers in our midst, and for a large and important institution like District Council 37 to show the way in providing services to our members from the far corners of the globe.

At DC 37, we are known for the tremendous array of services we provide to members of our union family, and that includes our sisters and brothers who were born elsewhere. Let me give you a few examples of what I am talking about.

Hundreds of members every year participate in the English as a Second Language course offered by our Education Fund, which focuses on helping foreign-born members improve their spoken and written English communication skills. We offer these classes close to members’ jobs in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. In a single class, participants may come from Russia and Japan, South America and South Asia, Argentina and Zaire.

New York is the classic cultural “melting pot,” but it is also a city of ethnic enclaves, and some of the classes take on the flavor of their neighborhoods. You will find more Haitian Creole spoken near Kings County Hospital and more Eastern European tongues in the North Bronx. But all the students are working hard so they can communicate better with their neighbors, move ahead on the job and become well-informed members of a democratic society. DC 37 believes in helping them with all these goals.

Our other language programs — such as Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Italian — teach much more than the language. They help members improve their understanding of other groups and their cultural sensitivity.

Opening the doors to city jobs

When discrimination based on race, sex, disability, sexual orientation or country of origin undermines our members’ rights to equal treatment, DC 37 stands up and fights back. Decades ago, our Legal Dept. won the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in this field, Dougall v. Sugarman. The 1973 ruling canceled a law that banned non-citizens from city jobs and opened the door to first hundreds and then thousands of DC 37 members who today play a vital role in keeping New York City running.

As workers from around the globe, especially professionals, flocked to city jobs, our lawyers continued to process their claims regarding promotion and pension rights. And when many were disqualified from their jobs because the former city Personnel Dept. had overly narrow views of what foreign educational degrees were acceptable, our Legal Department broke through that barrier to keep open the doors to quality civil service jobs.

Our Citizenship Committee — one of the few union programs of its kind — helps empower members to become citizens. Working with the committee, lawyers from our Municipal Employees Legal Service have already helped hundreds of members fill out the complicated legal papers (which outside lawyers charge from $500 to $1,000 for) while committee members help them prepare to pass the difficult test.

DC 37 is proud that a local president who is himself an immigrant to the United States heads this committee and that many other local presidents and officers come from countries around the world. One of our highest officers, DC 37 Treasurer Maf Misbah Uddin, helped his nation, Bangladesh, gain its freedom before he came here, where he is carrying on the struggle for the rights of all immigrants and all our members.

At DC 37, we don’t just talk about progress for our foreign-born sisters and brothers, we provide the services and the leadership to make immigrant rights a reality.

 

 

 
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