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Ask Jon 24: Unions and Humanism on Labour Day


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/04/22

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about labor rights and Secular Humanism.

*Interview conducted on September 7, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, there are some – I wouldn’t call them – peripheral issues. It’s just not-covered-as-much issues because other things take up the news cycle, especially in the last few years.

So, there are labor rights. What are some issues that, maybe, some New Yorkers have gotten involved in and some other secular groups might want to consider in regards to labor rights as a secular issue?

Jonathan Engel: Today’s Labor Day in the United States. It’s a good day to talk about this. But of course, not that much, the labor movement and the participation in labor unions in this country have gone way down in the last 50 years at the same time that income inequality and wealth inequality has gone way up.

And I don’t think that that’s any coincidence. And New York City is kind of a labor town. There are labor unions. In New York City, a higher percentage of workers are unionized than in other parts of the country. My wife is a member of a union, proud member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which has done quite a bit of good for her. And quite a bit of good for her and for its members.

New York City schools were supposed to open on September 9th. In terms of when the kids come back teachers go back tomorrow, but the kids are supposed to come back on Wednesday. And what happened was representatives of the UFT went and inspected the schools and came back to the mayor and said, “No, these schools are simply not ready in the age of COVID to be receiving kids.”

There are too many schools that don’t have plans in place for what happens to kids who test positive. There are too many schools that don’t have proper equipment, proper cleaning equipment or proper personal protective equipment for teachers and other school personnel. And therefore, they go back.

So now the kids are due to come in on September 21st in order to get schools more time to get the classrooms ready for kids and teachers. And that wouldn’t have happened without the UFT. That wouldn’t have happened without the labor union, because the city was just going to say, “Okay, that’s it.”

“Teachers go?”

“Yes, that’s it. This is when we’re starting and that’s it.”

And it was up to the union, the city, the Department of Education, they weren’t going in and looking at every school and saying, “Well, are we really ready for this?” They were just like, “Okay, the mayor wants to open up. So, we’re opening up.”

And it was the labor unions that went in and said, “No.” They had the clamp. They had the power to say, “Listen, we’re not going if we don’t do something to better prepare the schools for the kids and for the teachers, in terms of COVID. So, we’re not going if you don’t do that.

Only the union was going to do that. Only the union was going to step in and say, “We’re not coming back unless better steps are taken to protect our members.” Nobody else was going to do that. And of course, individual teachers would not have any clout because what’s one teacher, right?

But when you have thousands of teachers, all belonging to the United Federation of Teachers saying, “We’re not going until you fix this,” then all of a sudden there’s power. All of a sudden, management has no choice, but to negotiate with labor in order to find a common ground; so that they can allow the schools to reopen again.

But protecting the teacher’s health and not just teachers, I think of teachers because my wife’s a teacher, but it’s also the kids themselves.

And of course, the families or everybody you’ve come in contact with; it’s teacher. It’s administrators. It’s everybody in the building, a school building, but it’s also everybody when they go home to everybody else – who they come in contact with.

And the only people who were going to protect them, was the labor union, the United Federation of Teachers. They are the ones who went in and looked at the situation to see if it was ready, determined it wasn’t.

And then went back to the city and said, “We’re going to strike. If we’re not going, we’re going to strike.” And that’s every teacher in the city, right? You can’t have a little here and a little there. They’ll replace you. Every teacher in the city, we’re going to strike. If we don’t come to some accommodation, that gives us more time to make sure the schools will be ready in a safe way. For teachers, again, it’s a UFT, but for really everybody in the school.

Jacobsen: What about the individual who identifies as secular in some manner but who disagrees on the idea of unions? Any thoughts about that?

Engel: There’s no question that the unions have done much to shoot themselves in the foot, between mob infiltration of some unions, embezzlements, that was rampant in some unions. Featherbedding, racism has been endemic in certain unions, especially the trade unions for years.

So, I can understand. I can understand that people sometimes have negative views of unions. Back from the movie On the Waterfront, the negative views of unions. I can understand that. But hey, if you want a movie, why don’t you go look at Norma Rae? Those are just taking slices of what has gone on; I can understand why some people have negative views of unions.

And I think that all those things are correctable: the embezzlement, the mob infiltration, the feather bedding, things like that are all correctable. But bottom line stays the same, which is that with corporate power so strong in the world and in the United States in particular, they are the only vehicle for power, for the average person, for the average guy, for the average man, woman worker.

The only protection they’re going to get is from the union, because management is not going to look out for them and government being so under the thumb of big business; they’re not going to look out for the average workers.

So, they certainly haven’t been doing so for the last, I don’t know how many years. And so, yes, I can understand some negative views of unions. If somebody else has a better idea of how workers can even the playing field with corporations, I’d like to hear it, but I don’t know of any.

Jacobsen: Jon, thank you for your time.

Engel: Okay, Scott, thank you so much. And one more thing I want to add, I think I’ve mentioned it to you before, but just to show you that government’s not taking care of union members. Representative Eric Canter, who was representative from Virginia, he was a high up guy in the Republican Party.

He had a pretty high title among congressional Republicans and about five years ago or so; he put out a tweet on Labour Day celebrating small business owners and all they do for the country. And it’s like, “Listen, Hey, yo buddy, this is not Management Day. It’s Labour Day.”

But that was the best that a government official could do on that particular Labour Day, which is to say how honoured management is as opposed to labor.

So, again, I think that the only people who are going to stand up for rights of workers right now, and if you care about humanism, if you care about each individual person as having worth and value, their rights are only going to really be protected by unions.

So, thank you, Scott, and have a good week.

Jacobsen: Thank you. You too.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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