Editor’s note: Victor Coscia, Charlotte County Democratic Party member, shares his union stories.
Victor Coscia was a school teacher in Newark, NJ and a member of the teachers’ union. He worked in a middle-class, working school district. “I started in 1971 made $5000 per year, and taught social studies, science, and phys ed. I quit teaching in 1985-86 and was making $16,000”, Coscia said. (For comparison to today’s wages, in 1970 the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was 39. Today the CPI is 256, a 650% increase. An item that cost $1 in 1970 costs $6.50 today.)
The union protected workers and got some benefits. “The teachers’ union didn’t go on strike. “Nobody wanted to go on strike,” Coscia said.
During summer vacations, Coscia worked for a heating and air conditioning company. His first job was cleaning the interior of industrial boilers in factories and apartment buildings. “This was during the time when people were switching from coal-fired to oil-fired furnaces”. It was hot inside the boiler, temperatures as high as 120 degrees. “I scraped soot off the boiler walls and tubes and pushed the soot to the opening where someone outside vacuumed the soot.” Coscia remembers it was impossible to completely clean himself of the soot. “I showered at work before coming home. Showered again at home. I got up from bed the next day, and there was soot on the sheets”.
Because this work was unskilled labor, Coscia was ineligible to join the union. He got a chance to get out the boilers and take a skilled job as a ductwork fabricator. “Once I got a skilled job, I could make three times as before. Because it was a skilled job, I could join the union. As a skilled guy, they could offer benefits to me”. He joined the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union; his wage went from $2 to $6 per hour and he got health, dental and vision insurance.
He was able to pay half-year union membership dues and qualify for six months of benefits. The Sheet Metal Workers Union benefits were much better than the teachers’ union benefits. “I made all of my doctor’s appointments in the summer”.
At times Coscia was assigned to unsafe and unhealthy work locations. “You were working in the basements of apartment buildings and they were flooded. Who knew what was floating in the water?” The union negotiated with the company so that workers would not have to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. “It’s nice someone was watching my back”.
“Without unions, you have to do as you’re told”, Coscia said. “If you think that they don’t help, you aren’t paying attention. Companies don’t care about the employees. They only care about themselves and their shareholders. Unions are the balls!”