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1.8 Million Reasons to Belong to a Union

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By Jim Durkin, AFSCME Council 93 Worth the Fight Workers' Rights

BOSTON – More than 350 current and retired members of AFSCME Local 851 in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts, are sharing a total of $1.845 million in back pay – money that was illegally stripped from their paychecks in 2011 by the city's former mayor.

The money was distributed in mid-August, years after former Mayor Scott Lang announced furloughs despite clear language in the law requiring the union’s consent.

“This win sends a loud and clear message that we will fight for a long as it takes to achieve justice whenever our members our treated unfairly,” said Council 93 Executive Director Frank Moroney.

The long road to victory started with a November 2011 ruling against the furlough by the Commonwealth’s Employment Relations Board (CERB). Lang left office a few months after the CERB ruling, but his successor, Jon Mitchell, continued to fight AFSCME in court, forcing a long legal battle that ended with a showdown in the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

In December 2016, the state's highest court ruled in AFSCME's favor and the city began identifying the workers who were owed the money and calculating the amounts due. On July 20, the $1,845,942 in payments were unanimously approved by the New Bedford City Council. A month later, the funds were in the hands of AFSCME members.

Donna Cordeiro, who worked for the city's library for more than 38 years, received a check totaling $5,976 before taxes. Cordeiro said she will use the money to pay down some debt and build her savings account.

“AFSCME did a great job,” Cordeiro said. “They did all they could for us and they fought until the end. They stuck with us and didn't give up.”

Local 851 member and Steward Shelley Avila-Martins is among the current workers who received the long-overdue money in August. A zoo keeper at the city's Buttonwood Park Zoo for the past 16 years, Avila-Martins recalled the financial hardship on her family when her pay was drastically cut.

“It was rough,” she said. “I just had a baby and we already had a 2-year-old. At the time, the loss of money every week hurt me really bad.”

Avila-Martins knew her union was fighting for her, but acknowledges that she was doubtful at times that city leaders would ever pay their debt.

“Honestly, sometimes I figured I'd be dead and gone and my kids or my grandkids would end up having to fight for it,” she said with a laugh.

For Avila-Martins, who received $6,899 in back pay before taxes, the money will ease the transition to a new apartment for her and her family. She said the victory is just one of many examples of why workers need union protection.

She said, “As a steward I tell people all the time that the union is only as strong as its members and if we stay together there is nothing that we can't accomplish.”