04/02/2013 01:20 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Pay Equity Is Every Worker's Right

Unions fight for better pay, wages and pensions that guarantee workers dignity in retirement. We do this because the Labor Movement, at its heart, is about fairness.

Fairness and equality go hand in hand. That's why we are fighting so hard for our school safety agents to be paid the same wage as other certified peace officers who do similar work. More than 5,000 current and former school safety agents ─ 70 percent of whom are women ─ have joined the gender-based, class-action, wage-discrimination suit led by Teamsters Local 237 against the City of New York.

School safety agents (SSAs), patrol the halls of New York City public schools and protect students and staff, much like Health and Hospital Corporation police do at public hospitals, and other peace officers do at homeless shelters and at city college campuses. But right now, SSAs are paid 20 percent less than other peace officers, which amounts to $7,000 a year.

An annual $7,000 more in pay can provide a year of tuition for a SSAs child at a city university, or a down payment on a new car. Our SSAs are being denied a better life. They are peace officers who are not being treated equally, and that's not fair.

Discrimination is not acceptable at any job, but this is not just any job. It's a difficult and important one. Our children can't learn if they don't feel safe in their schools. It's a sad truth that many school administrators spend more time responding to illegal behavior than fostering academic achievement. Our SSAs try to change that. They confiscate guns, break up fights, endure assaults ─ all while receiving little or no credit. These peace officers deserve to be treated fairly, not as second-class citizens.

We want to resolve this issue, but the city is refusing. We've reached out to the city's Office of Labor Relations, but they won't talk to us. International President James P. Hoffa and Joint Council 16 President George Miranda joined me recently at a press conference to publicly ask the Mayor for a settlement. While our members deserve to be fully compensated, they have been seeking justice for years and should not have to wait several more while the suit works its way through the courts. A settlement is in the city's interest as well, likely paying out millions less than they would pay if it loses the case in court (which it likely will).

While the city resists spending money from a tight budget, this case is not about asking for a raise. It's about correcting an injustice and sending a message that all public-safety officers - male and female - are equal and important to the city.

The foundation for this case was set by great women's advocates like Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem and many others that fought for equal treatment. The Labor Movement was vital to the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement. As a society, our jobs are a large part of who we are. We can measure our values on how we treat people at work. These are not just labor values; these are American values.

It's encouraging that those values are once again on the forefront of public discussion. There is a chorus of voices calling for an increase to the minimum wage and for mandatory paid sick days. These voices grow louder each day, and we look forward to victory on these issues and others. A rising sea lifts all boats. Better rights for all workers - union and not - strengthen our fight for the Labor Movement.

And so I pledge to keep fighting for our SSAs as long as it takes. A victory in this class-action suit would set another cornerstone in the foundation for equal rights.