Focusing On Work, Family, Community
BY JON CRONIN
Tanya Cunningham was born with the labor movement in her blood.
Her immigrant parents—whom she cites as the persons who gave her the temerity needed to face life’s obstacles—always pushed her to further her goals.
Today, Cunningham is an executive board member with Local Union 3 and doesn’t believe she could have gotten there without them.
“I was brought up with the concept that all people should be treated as equals and that you have a commitment to take care of those around you as we all are codependent on each other,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham’s father was an electrician with Local Union 3, and her older brother joined the union. When she was taking classes at Nassau Community College while living in Elmont after high school, she asked her father if she could apprentice with the Local Union 3.
“I attended Nassau Community College because I wasn’t quite sure of the career I wanted to pursue,” she said. “I was always hands-on as a child and was fascinated with the work my father did.”
After transferring to Empire State College to get her associates degree in Labor Studies in 2001, she was initiated into the apprentice program at the union.
Cunningham worked Monday through Friday and, for two days a week after work, attended electrical theory school.
“Although I was in a great place in my career, the value of education was always stressed to me as a child, so I wanted to further my education, and last year I received my bachelors degree,” Cunningham said.
As her skills and time with the union grew, she recognized the importance of the ideals of the labor movement.
“The concepts of fair wages, pay equality, medical and retiree benefits, and the ability to use collective bargaining to achieve those things are things all union members should never take for granted,” she said.
She recounted a fond memory of a young journeywoman telling her how inspiring it was to see another woman on the executive’s dais table.
“From that encounter, she has become more active and vocal in the union,” Cunningham said. “Every time I see her, it reminds me that my actions or my involvement can change someone’s perspective. Knowing that I can draw out that sentiment from others drives me to give my all to this position.”
Cunningham said that she feels fortunate to be part of this particular union.
“Historically, we have been at the forefront of supporting social issues head on,” she said. “I feel that reflects in our membership and the cultural awareness that is available through the various affiliated clubs of Local 3.”
She pointed out that the union’s leadership is diverse.
“I am a 37-year-old black woman with parents who migrated to this country,” she said. “With all the societal strikes against me, I’m able to serve the membership of Local 3 and the labor movement as a whole. There has been a lot of debate over the lack of diversity within trade unions. There is still more work to do in order to create better equity to the access to careers in this industry. From my experience, opportunities are available to those who are qualified, regardless of race, gender, religion, etc.”
She said that her union encourages diversity and has a zero tolerance for divisiveness.
However, she noted that unions and membership across the nation are on the decline. Cunningham added that employers have become better at “union busting tactics” and the “the right-to-work laws are kicking the butts of unions across the country.”
“Corporate greed has corrupted the minds of America and this has hurt the labor movement drastically,” she said.
As an example, she referenced the city’s attempts to help Spectrum workers negotiate, “but you won’t hear about that in the media until it’s too late.”
“We are dealing with people versus profits and the biggest thing at stake is the preservation of the ability to have a say in your working conditions,” Cunningham said.
As a result of those tactics, Cunningham said that unions are now working harder to educate their members and the public on the benefits of an organized and safe workforce.
She believes that her work is improving the lives of those in her union in a fight to continue better wages, work place safety, health benefits and retirement security. Through collective bargaining, the economic and social interests of the membership are often met, she added.
Cunningham pointed out that non-unionized workers also reap the benefits of the labor movement in New York City due to the standards set by the unions.
Reach reporter Jon Cronin via firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 357-7400, ext. 125.