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Engineer Inspired by Labor History

by Clyde Weiss  |  February 25, 2016

Engineer Inspired by Labor History Engineer Chuck Martin, AFSCME Local 1981 (Council 89), takes his labor history seriously. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Martin)

Chuck Martin, a student of labor history, says the progress that workers have made since World War II can be traced to the “long and bloody struggle of the labor movement” that culminated in the reforms of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. However, Martin didn’t get serious about the labor movement until two years ago, when he joined AFSCME.  

Martin, a member of the executive board of AFSCME Local 1981 (Council 89), has developed a strong interest in the role of unions in building a vibrant working class, and about how public-sector unions like AFSCME have expanded workers’ rights for government employees.

A steward in his workplace and a bridge inspection engineer for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Martin also has developed a strong desire to share his knowledge of labor’s role in the workplace with his fellow AFSCME members, as well as those who have yet to join. That’s why the AFSCME Strong training he received last fall has resonated with him, like it has so many other AFSCME members during the past year.

Talking one-on-one to others about the importance of joining and staying with their union is just another way for Martin to share what he’s learned, not only as an AFSCME leader and activist, but also as a student of labor history. That came partly through classes offered by the Union Leadership Academy, co-sponsored by the Harrisburg Area Central Labor Council and the Labor Education Program at Penn State University’s School of Labor and Employment Relations.

When people “understand unions in the workplace,” he said, “they also understand it in the community” where unions have helped break down barriers to equal rights, pay equity, women’s rights and many other social issues.

Although his knowledge of labor history is relatively recent, Martin’s interest in what workers can do to increase power in the workplace began when he was just a youth. “When I was younger, my dad, who was a nonunion engineer, would always talk about how his health insurance was getting worse,” he explained. “I kept asking him, ‘Why don’t you do something about it? Stick up for yourself.’ That’s why I got more involved in my union. If you’re in a union, then you have everyone sticking together, fighting together.”

Now he is helping to educate others, not only through the AFSCME Strong program but also through a book club that he organized, focused on labor history. He started the club because “people don’t understand labor history,” he said. “They don’t understand the struggles it took to have the standard of living we have today.”

So far the book club members have read four books, including “Labor's Untold Story: The Adventure Story of the Battles, Betrayals and Victories of American Working Men and Women,” by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais. Martin plans to read “The History of Council 13 AFSCME” by Carmen Brutto.

Martin has even taken to writing about the role of unions in the workplace. In a recent essay he warned about employers who insincerely show their appreciation for employees, on the one hand, while plotting to undermine their jobs on the other. “Does the little bit of ice cream or pizza make up for the fact that positions are not being filled and the slack is being taken up by the remaining employees?” he wrote. 

His advice is to educate your co-workers about the threats to workers’ rights. “Don't forget that everything we won was not given to us on a silver platter,” he wrote in his essay. “It was won by us combining together with our brothers and sisters in a union and demanding that we are compensated properly for our worth.”

In other words, get AFSCME Strong and never quit.

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