A hot mid-August sun beamed brightly on the steps of Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill high school, as if to signal a new day for thousands of women in New York City. Kangela Moore, a proud mother and proud Teamster, stood with her sisters and brothers—School Safety Agents in the largest school system in the country—to celebrate a momentous victory for pay equity for women.
Moore, a 22-year School Safety Agent and member of Local 237, was paid $7,000 less than her male counterparts—and she wasn’t alone. Some 5,000 School Safety Agents worked for years making less than other peace officers in the city doing similar work. Appropriately, Moore’s 4-year battle for equal pay ended on August 26, 2014, Women’s Equality Day. At a press event with city officials, Local 237 and the city announced a $38-million settlement to the largest class-action pay discrimination lawsuit in the nation.
“What this settlement states is that inequality will not be tolerated in New York City. What this states is that New York City School Safety Agents are looked at as a vital entity in our New York City public school system and that we do a vital job. Now I’m able to put food on my table. This is truly an historic victory,” Moore said.
“Our school safety agents protect our most precious commodity: our children,” said Local 237 President Gregory Floyd. “All they want to be sure of is that they can put food on the table for their families.”
Combined with a new citywide contract, the lawsuit settlement announced in August secures a 33-percent raise for School Safety Agents over four years. The deal equalizes pays scales and grants retroactive pay, which will be distributed pending final court approval in February.
The named plaintiffs—Corinthians Andrews, Bernice Christopher and Patricia Williams—filed the wage discrimination lawsuit on behalf of Moore and her co-workers in 2010, protesting the $7,000 wage gap between the city’s mostly female School Safety Agents and male-dominated peace officer positions at hospitals and other public facilities.
“School safety agents play a critical role in keeping New York City’s children, teachers and education administrators safe every day. Thanks to their perseverance and the hard work of their union, Teamsters Local 237, they will finally be paid the same as their male counterparts at city hospitals and other public offices,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa.
Right on the heels of the Equal Pay Act settlement, safety agents joined other peace officers and public service Teamsters in approving a new citywide contract covering 8,000 city workers.
The new contract was ratified in September by 90 percent of the voting membership, locking in a 10.4-percent increase over the life of the contract and a $1,000 signing bonus.
Equal Pay For Equal Work
Local 237’s effort to win equal pay for School Safety Agents began over five years ago at the bargaining table.
“Since we represent other peace officers in the city doing similar work, we knew School Safety Agents were not making what they deserved. The disparity was clear,” Floyd said.
When the city refused to address that disparity in contract negotiations, Local 237 took the issue to court.
“President Floyd had the idea of increasing the pay for School Safety Agents and it’s unprecedented because most people, when they swear in, there is a base rate that hardly ever changes,” said Local 237 Law Enforcement Division Director Derek Johnson. “To get the city to change a base rate for a title for 5,000 people is very significant.”
The change is substantial for School Safety Agents, 70 percent of whom are women. The agents are predominately African-American and Latina, many of them single mothers who can’t put in overtime to make ends meet. Instead of making a salary of less than $39,000 in three years, under the settlement School Safety Agents will be making more than $46,500 by 2018. This includes a proportional increase in pensions and equalized pay scales.
That’s a big difference compared to where they started. In 2000, School Safety Agents were paid by the Board of Education and made $5,000 less than other peace officers. After they were shifted into the New York Police Department, the local fought to win civil service status for School Safety Agents, giving them a skilled job title and paving the way for higher pay.
Still, the wage disparity persisted and grew in proportion to annual increases.
During the lawsuit, Local 237 proved that School Safety Agents perform the same work as other peace officers. No longer could the city pretend that the work of officers in hospitals was more valuable because they have to walk up more floors in taller buildings compared to city schools. Nor could they argue that the work of a School Safety Agent was less dangerous. Armed with nothing more than a flashlight, handcuffs and an NYPD badge, the agents patrol schools in some of the toughest areas of the city in order to keep students and teachers safe.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer added, “I thank Teamsters Local 237 and Greg Floyd. He’s a labor leader that cares not just about the union but he really does care about the city.”
“Instead of living check to check, I can finally have something to save,” said School Safety Agent Linda Ricard. “I can finally be paid for the work I’ve been doing for 21 years.”
A Teamster-Community Coaltion
While Local 237 tackled the tedious legal work behind the federal class-action lawsuit, it built the case for equal pay outside the courtroom. Even as Teamster lawyers helped thousands of women submit depositions, a coalition of community allies came together and took up the fight for School Safety Agents.
“Our work with community allies such as the New York State Chapter of the NAACP and the New York City Chapter of the National Organization for Women was hugely important to this victory. These are the kinds of labor-community alliances that broaden our issues and benefit our members,” Floyd said.
Partners in the Teamster pay equity battle included none other than Lilly Ledbetter, a poster child for equal pay for women, who joined Teamster School Safety Agents at rallies to demand fairness.
“It’s a sad day when you have to live a life being shortchanged. I’ve lived that, I know what it’s like. It’s not only illegal, it’s immoral. It’s not just women, it’s families that suffer. Retirement and Social Security are shortchanged,” Ledbetter said at a rally back in May.
A former employee of Goodyear Tire who sued the company for paying her less than her male counterparts, Ledbetter’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and inspired the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which was signed into law by President Obama in 2009.
“We don’t want to have to stand up like this. You don’t want to file a lawsuit. You just want what you’re earning and entitled to. That’s all they’re asking for. Nothing more, just equality,” Ledbetter said.
Local 237’s coalition of community allies proved to be an effective political force. At a mayoral candidate’s forum hosted by the New York City Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW-NYC) in May 2013, NOW activists challenged candidates to commit to settling the longstanding dispute. The forum put then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio on record promising to settle the case, which he called a “no brainer.”
“We can’t keep putting women’s equality on the backburner. For our School Safety Agents, the tale of two cities is a reality that shows up in every single paycheck,” said NOW-NYC President Sonia Ossorio.
After de Blasio was elected mayor, NOW-NYC and other groups got to work holding the new mayor to his word. While Local 237’s legal team pursued a resolution with the city, community advocates publicly pressed the new administration until the agreement was announced.
“The days of blatant pay discrimination against the mostly female workforce that protects our kids at school are finally over,” Ossorio said.
Other community allies in the Teamster School Safety Agent fight included the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James.
Bigger Than New York City
The Teamster victory for women’s pay equity in New York City goes beyond city limits. Following the settlement, New York Gov. Anthony Cuomo invited School Safety Agent Kangela Moore to speak at a luncheon in support of the Women’s Equality Act, a 10-point legislative package for women’s equality that includes strengthening laws requiring equal pay for equal work.
Gov. Cuomo, who has pointed to Local 237’s settlement as indicative of the need to pass the Women’s Equality Act, was introduced by Moore at the September event. She credited the strength of the Teamsters Union in winning the settlement, but noted that not all working women have a strong union that can fight for them.
“Luckily we have a strong union, Teamsters Local 237, headed by President Gregory Floyd, so our story had a happy ending with an historic settlement. But we know full-well that women’s equality does not happen easily or overnight. And even more important, no one should have to go to court or negotiate a settlement just to be treated equally,” Moore said.
Floyd echoed her point: “Many women in the work force are nonunion and don’t have a union like Local 237 that the School Safety Agents have to fight on their behalf. That’s why Gov. Cuomo recognizes the need for broader legislation, because it shouldn’t take huge lawsuits to win equal pay for women,” he said.
In addition to addressing sexual harassment, discrimination in housing and other issues, the Women’s Equality Act would close a loophole in the state’s equal pay law that allows employers to justify paying lower wages to female employees.
For Teamsters like Moore and her co-workers, pay equity is not just a moral cause—it’s a material necessity. School Safety Agents underscored this reality after learning about the historic settlement.
“This is long overdue. We can finally put food on our tables and not have to be behind on bills,” said School Safety Agent Yvonne Clark.
Her co-worker Madeline DaGraca-Ellis agreed, adding that the settlement means hardworking women can enjoy more time with family and friends.
“Now we can work and spend more time with our families instead of doing so much extra overtime just to make ends meet,” she said.
Along with their historic settlement, Local 237’s new citywide contract secures a better future for male and female School Safety Agents.
“This is an overwhelming, resounding victory for us because we are now able to do so much more. But more importantly, it shows a lot of respect for School Safety Agents for what we do day in and day out,” said School Safety Agent Brian Davis.
In negotiations, Local 237 successfully beat back the city’s effort to make employees pay a portion of their health insurance premium. Instead, the new contract provides an additional $100 per member toward their health care. Significantly, the agreement also raised the city’s contribution to Local 237’s Welfare Fund by $280 per member, an increase that benefits all members of the local.
“With the settlement and the contract, this is something I’m proud of as a union leader. We really made a difference in 5,000 lives—in 23,000 lives,” Floyd said.
Floyd is also proud of Local 237, which proved that for New York City’s hardworking women, no challenge is too big for Teamster tenacity.