Unions and Education: Keys to the American Dream

Reposted from Union Plus

Immigrant families join unions, work hard and achieve success—with help from Union Plus awards scholarships and other benefits

For centuries, immigrants have come to America seeking opportunity. In these difficult economic times, some people would say those opportunities are fewer than before.

That may be true for non-union jobs, which offer lower pay and limited benefits. Some immigrants even report being exploited by non-union employers, sometimes with tragic results.

But for many immigrants who join unions, the American dream is still very much within reach. Recipients of Union Plus scholarships have expressed how union benefits offer their families greater security, more dignity and respect in the workplace, better wages and more protection for workers, including rules that prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Recently, Union Plus announced the winners of its 2013 scholarships. Among the honorees were dozens of students who are children or grandchildren of immigrants—many of whom overcame considerable obstacles and hardship thanks to the union—and who are now excelling academically while pursuing education and careers in fields such as medicine and law.

When Phuong Duong of Fairfax, VA, came to America from Vietnam, for example, he suffered a serious workplace injury. But he would soon learn that, as a union member in United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 400, he was entitled to protection—and compensation.

UFCW backed him through his injuries, ensured he received proper care and benefits, guaranteed his job was waiting for him upon his return, and helped achieve a safer workplace for his coworkers.

Ngoc Duong, daughter of Local 400 member Phuong Dong and Union Plus scholarship winner, says her father's decision to join a union was saved their family.

Ngoc Duong, daughter of Local 400 member Phuong Dong and Union Plus scholarship winner, says her father’s decision to join a union was saved their family.

He also helped achieve opportunity for his family. Today Phuong’s daughter Ngoc, who recently received a Union Plus scholarship, has attained a business degree and is pursuing a career in management.

Her father’s decision to join the union, she says, “saved our family.”

The Duong family’s story is a familiar one, only with a modern twist. For generations immigrant families have come to America, joined unions and worked hard, while their children and grandchildren have advanced their careers through college education.

Today, however, rising education costs are making it difficult for even many union families to afford the cost of tuition. That’s one reason Union Plus, which was established by the AFL-CIO to provide important consumer benefits to union members and retirees, offers a unique scholarship program for union members and family members—a program that in just over two decades has awarded over $3.5 million in education funding.

“The union movement believes strongly in education, which for generations has helped working people to advance their own careers and improve the lives of their children,” says Leslie Tolf, president of Union Privilege, the organization that provides Union Plus benefits for union families. “These days, however, rising tuitions and expensive student loans are putting higher education out of reach for many working families. That’s why we continue our long commitment to funding college scholarships to help union families achieve their dreams.”

Electra Nassis of Dobbs Ferry, NY, whose family immigrated to the United States from Greece, is studying biomedical engineering. But she knows she wouldn’t be where she is today if it weren’t for her father Yanni’s membership in International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3.

“As immigrants, my family had to start with nothing when we first came to the United States,” she says. “I have watched my parents work endlessly for 14 years to provide us with food, clothing and shelter. They succeeded and I will, too.” To help ensure Electra’s success, and defray the costs of higher education, Union Plus has provided her with a scholarship.

Andrew Gonzales of Winters, CA, grew up solidly middle class—an advantage he attributes to his grandparents joining unions after immigrating, and to both his parents being union members, including his father’s membership in International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 3. “I am thankful to them for the lifestyle I live,” Andrew says.

“They came to work in this country as laborers,” he adds, “and because of unions they were given the opportunity to advance the quality of their life.”

Like many of the families represented among this year’s Union Plus scholarship recipients, Andrew’s parents and grandparents felt passionately about giving back to their country and community, and it is a lesson they passed on to him. Andrew has volunteered avidly, including giving his time to Future Farmers of America; he plans to use his Union Plus scholarship to advance his studies in the field of animal science.

If you are a union member or your parents, spouse or children are members—and pursuing the American Dream through education—you should learn more about Union Plus Scholarship awards, which are granted to students attending a two-year college, four-year college, graduate school or a recognized technical or trade school. Recipients are selected based on academic ability, social awareness, financial need and appreciation of labor.

Please visit UnionPlus.org/Education for applications and benefit eligibility.

In addition to the Union Plus Scholarships, the following benefits help union families afford higher education:

  • National Labor College (NLC) Scholarships to help union members and leaders finish their degrees with an affordable, flexible and convenient online NLC program  (starting in September, the NLC will offer associate of arts degrees (for the first two years of college);
  • Discounts of 15 to 60 percent on college and graduate school test (e.g. SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, GRE, etc.) preparation courses from The Princeton Review.

Union Plus also provides a wide range of money-saving benefits and services for union families, including discounts on all-union AT&T wireless service, a credit card and mortgage with unique financial assistance, savings on travel and recreation, and more. To learn more, visit UnionPlus.org.

For many immigrant parents the American Dream has always been to get a good job, encourage their children’s achievements, and increase opportunity from one generation to the next. Education is one part of that ascendancy, and so is union membership. Today, more than ever, good union wages and benefits give families the security they need, and children the opportunity to succeed—with help from Union Plus.