Vicki Smith

VICKI SMITH, Morgantown, W. Va.

No one asked me to join the Guild. No one had to. When the  card  appeared in my mailbox, I signed it. I was a blue-collar  kid,  raised by a single mom in southwestern Pennsylvania.  I  saw firsthand  how important a good union is.

A union oppens doors, creating opportunity for people who want it. A union forces companies to obey the law, to stop discriminating, to pay people what they’re worth, and to improve quality of life with overtime, vacation, sick days and family leave.

A union helped my mother, Bernice DiEmidio, when she wanted to do more than wait tables.

If it weren’t for IBEW Local 459, she would not have been the first woman to work at the Penelec power plant in Homer City, Pa. — and the third woman hired companywide.

She started as a janitor, shoveling waste coal and working her way up the hierarchy of colored hard hats — fromyellow (plant worker), to red (traveling maintenance), to white (supervisory) and finally, to the corporate offices.

The union made sure she had a safe work environment while she labored full-time, going to school at night for 14 years to earn a business degree. She graduated on a Mother’s Day, and by the time she retired under a corporate merger buyout, she’d become manager of safety and health.

She could have done it without the union but says the harassment probably would have been unbearable. “Just think ‘North Country,’” she tells me.

For me, 2009 was a painful reminder that a union is as relevant and important as ever. It forces the company to treat us with respect, negotiating buyouts and severance packages we wouldn’t get on our own.

It can’t always protect us, but it’s the best insurance we have.

And when we do have to leave, it helps us do so with dignity.