October 14, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
“I’m not a labor hero,” insists William Caramico of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 94. “I’m telling the stories of the true labor heroes.” Caramico, 61, a mechanic and shop steward at the New York Post printing plant, teaches classes in labor history to new Local 94 members as part of their three-year technical training program. He brings a lot of passion and fervor to it.
“I think it’s wrong that they don’t teach labor history in school in this country,” he says. “Everything we have today wasn’t given away. It was a fight. It’s amazing how many people don’t know this.”
The three sessions go over “how a union runs and what it means to you and your family to be in a union” and discuss “how the hours, the benefits, and the safety on our jobs did not come free. How men, women, and children were jailed, beaten, and sometimes killed for these rights.” That includes the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado—in which 19 people, including four women and 11 children, were killed when state militia and coal-company goons torched a tent colony of striking miners and fired guns into the flames—and the little-known Columbine massacre of 1927, when six striking miners were shot to death with machine guns by Colorado Rangers and company guards.
“We talk about Walmart workers getting $6-8 billion in food stamps and health care,” Caramico says. “We talk about how ‘right to work’ can kill unions by workers not paying dues.”
He has been teaching these classes—which he developed—for about a year. Local 94 President Kuba Brown, he says, “felt it was time we started letting the new students know” about the union movement’s past.
“He is one of the few people in the labor movement that makes it worth fighting for,” says Brown.
Caramico says he asks the new members to remember how they felt when they saw presents under the Christmas tree when they were kids, and then tells them, “It didn’t come from Santa Claus. It came from Mommy and Daddy who worked for it.”
That, he adds, is a good metaphor for labor history. “I try to inform them that this history is how they got the union card,” he says. “I try to teach them how to keep it.”
“Labor built America, no matter what you want to say,” he continues. “It’s very easy math. When unions are strong, the middle class is strong, and America is strong.”
Young union members have to know this history, he believes, and stay active to preserve the pay and rights they have against assaults like the bans on union shops recently enacted in Wisconsin and Michigan. “You can’t say you’re not going to get involved in politics,” he says. “We could lose it tomorrow.”
“When the new members leave my class, I tell them, ‘check what I am telling you for yourself,’” he adds. “At Local 94, we do not want followers. We want strong engineers and strong leaders.”
A resident of Bayside, Queens, Caramico has two daughters and one granddaughter. Their future, he says, “is why I’m so passionate about this.”