Back to the States - and 100 Trade UnionistsFollowing on from the EU-US event in Washington DC in February I received quite a bizarre email from the CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), Andy Imparato.
Keen followers of the Disability Champions@Work world tour will recall that I met with Andy before flying back to England on my last Visit. Andy was organising an event for trade unionists called “21st Century Solidarity: Promoting a Living Wage and Civil Rights for all Workers”; he “wondered if I could pop over and do 10 minutes about the project”. Bizarre indeed but also a wonderful testimony to the impact the project had left with him.
It seemed impossible until American Airlines donated flights to enable me to participate. Building upon links made via the East Riding College TU studies centre exchange programme with New York City I was able to hook up with a friend from the Committee for Interns and Residents (CIR-SEIU) Louis Guida. CIR-SEIU are the junior doctors union. Between the union and Louis personally they looked after me while I was there and I was able to join with them for a couple of days on their Save Our Safety Net Campaign.
I flew to New York City on Monday 3rd April. On the Tuesday Louis had arranged for us to meet with the CEO of CID-NY, The Centre for Independence of the Disabled in New York. CID-NY (pronounced Sydney) is a non-profit organization founded in 1979. They are part of the Independent Living Centers movement -- a national network of grassroots and community-based organizations that enhance opportunities for all disabled people to direct their own lives. They work together for equal opportunity, economic self-sufficiency, and full participation. Part of their remit is to provide training in disability awarness. We were fortunate to meet with two of their trainers. It was quite remarkable how similar issues are on both sides of the Atlantic. Where we have the luxury of a 5 day training course CID-NY generally have a half a day to deliver their message. We swapped ideas and information both on the day and since returning. Visit CID-NY’s Website for more information.
On Wednesday I joined Louis and two of his colleagues working on the Save Our Safety Net Campaign. As part of the state budget passed in April 2005, Governor Pataki and the New York State Legislature established the Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century. The panel's mission is to make recommendations on how to reduce the state's Medicaid spending, mainly by closing hospitals and nursing homes. The facilities under threat are almost all in the poorest areas of the state which tend also to be those areas populated by Black, Hispanic and other minority ethnic groups. We flew up to Rochester to attend a ‘public’ meeting of the panel, known to CIR-SEIU as “the hospital closing panel”. The selectively publicised meeting had maybe 50 of us in the neatly laid out 500 or so seats. Following the brief public meeting we met with black community and church leaders; these people had heard nothing about the public meeting or even the policy and closure programme. Being a small part of this awareness raising was very rewarding. I can only wish the guys involved with the campaign every success. To find out more visit the campaign’s website.
After the long day up in Rochester it was a 5am start to catch a train down to Washington for the conference. I’d arranged for Louis to join me on the panel so I could talk about the project and he could give his thoughts on how it could work in the US. The conference was jointly hosted by AAPD and Cornell University.
Moderator for the event was Richard G Womack, Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO in Washington DC. AFL-CIO is the equivalent to the TUC in the UK. I’m not quite sure how the short straw headed my way but following the introductions I was the first to address the group.
Talking to a trade union audience was much different to addressing the previous conference of industrialists and politicians. I wanted to deliver the key facts about what we have done not just in terms of Disability Champions At Work but the wider positive agenda of UK trade unionism not least of course the role of the Union Learning Rep. Despite my self confessed worst accent in the English speaking world I think the message was clearly heard. Click on this link to read the full text of my speech.
Louis followed taking the opportunity to talk about the Save our Safety Net Campaign and then talking about the UK approach to trade union education that he has witnessed first hand with two visits to England and being involved in three UK visits to New York City. We really take the right to paid time off to attend courses for granted over here. The Americans have nothing like this.
The next speaker was Barbara Byers, the Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress. Canada has no equivalent to the DDA or the Americans with Disabilities Act, such issues are dealt with using their Civil Rights and Freedom legislation she told us. The thing that was common was that the theory looked quite good but enforcement was another issue. She then talked about their “Time to do MORE” Campaign: Mobilise, Organise, Represent, Educate. The posters around this are great showing a woman walking with an assistance dog and the caption "Disability doesn’t stop me. Discrimination can”. There’s more info on this at www.clc-ctc.ca.
Finally came Larry Trayner from the deaf/hard of hearing task force of the American Postal Workers Union. Larry delivered his speech in American Sign Language (ASL) using an interpreter. This caused a slight delay in proceeding so the interpreter could use the rostrum mike and also see Larry and allow him to present facing the audience. I kind of like it when things like this happen; it shows that even the best thought out events will miss things – to me it shows that there isn’t a “we do it right, you’re doing it wrong” approach. It sort of makes things human rather than being holier than thou. Larry told us of his experiences in the postal workers union which were very positive and empowering.
The plenary panel discussion was very lively with lots of questions for all of us on the panel. The conference went really well it was just a shame that I had to leave very shortly after the formalities ended to head for the airport. Hopefully the assembled trade unionists will be able to take our ideas forward and benefit their disabled members too.
Many many thanks to Louis and Sarah for putting me up in New York, to CIR-SEIU for their support, to American Airlines for the flights and to Andy and the AAPD for the invitation and the opportunity.