The unifying force of unions
On Labor Day, let's celebrate recent wins our -- and look to add to them
CORPORATE AMERICA’S anti-union rhetoric isn’t tricking the American people anymore. After decades of labor unions being portrayed negatively, the majority of Americans now have a positive view of organized labor. Most people are catching on to the reality that the decline of union jobs is contributing to the rising tide of inequality and lack of opportunity, even for those with college degrees.
Workers are energized and fed up—in 2018, 485,000 workers went on strike, the highest number since 1986. Instead of being met with vitriol, they were met with overwhelming support and positive media coverage: We listened to Oklahoma parents voicing their support for teachers and understanding that they were standing up for school funding. Union workers had flipped the script.
But while positive public perception is good news for organized labor, it isn’t enough to ensure our survival. Union membership has been on a steady decline for decades. Today, while 64 percent of US residents support labor unions, only 10.5 percent belong to one. In the 1950s, that percentage was 35 percent. The numbers are clear—if our elected leaders don’t commit to making unions the center of their plans for economic growth, and if more unions don’t invest in growing their membership, then labor will die out.
As one of the leaders of a successful union, I know that our workers intuitively understand that in order to stand up for our rights and protect our labor standards, we need to develop a structure to continue growing, one that goes beyond any individual sector or trade. It’s that commitment from 32BJ SEIU workers that has resulted in remarkable growth for our union. In the past 20 years, we’ve organized 100,000 janitors, security officers, and other property service workers, including 50,000 in the last decade. Workers in poverty-wage, non-union industries have joined us; most recently, sub-contracted airport workers in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, DC. Now, these same airport workers who were struggling to make ends meet just a few years are on the path to $19 an hour, the highest minimum wage in the country. In Boston, these same workers are on the move, fighting to improve their standards at Logan Airport and office buildings across the Commonwealth.
Our 175,000 members, including 20,000 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, are involved in the very foundations of our democracy, including bringing elected leaders into office who reflect the diversity of our communities, and demonstrate their commitment to working people—leaders like our own Ayanna Pressley, the first black congresswoman to represent Massachusetts.
These 32BJ workers have also been instrumental in helping pass legislation that makes the future better for all. Along with other union workers and community allies, they fought for a $15 minimum wage in states including Massachusetts, something our communities sorely need as the cost-of-living in Boston and beyond continues to skyrocket. They helped pass paid family medical leave, and the Massachusetts law that will go into effect in 2021 is the most comprehensive and generous version that we’ve seen thus far. Finally, thanks to union workers and our allies, our country is starting to catch up to the rest of the developed world in offering working families the support they need.
And these brave men and women of labor have fought for more industry-specific policies. At Logan Airport, through the efforts of workers fighting to join our union, Massport agreed to a minimum wage for many which is higher than the state minimum—a policy that supports workers and their families and promotes passenger safety and comfort by helping keep turnover low. These courageous women and men, many immigrants with multiple jobs and families of their own to support, also shared their experience with wage theft, discrimination, and sexual harassment at the airport. In the security and janitorial fields, they’re trying to close wage gaps within the field by working to improve prevailing wage laws in these industries. The same kind of union workers who brought Americans a 40-hour work week, weekends, vacation time, and the luxury to get Labor Day off from work are still making improvements in all of our daily lives.
Yet, these are the same workers facing unprecedented attacks by the Trump administration. The majority of 32BJ members in Massachusetts and beyond are immigrants from black and brown communities. Many are among the 12,000 immigrants from countries, including El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan and more with Temporary Protected Status who could lose their legal status as soon as January 2020. These TPS holders, along with the thousands of undocumented immigrants who also call our state home, pay taxes, own small businesses, and send their often-US-born children to our state’s schools and churches. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to join them in fighting for legislation like the Work & Family Mobility Act, which would allow qualified Massachusetts immigrants to obtain a standard Massachusetts driver’s license, regardless of immigration status. By fighting for legislation like this, which already exists in 12 other states and Washington, DC, 32BJ members are standing up for all of the issues affecting their lives and the lives of their friends and neighbors. In the spirit of unity, they understand that this is our shared fight for justice.This Labor Day, let’s commit to uniting for a compassionate, strong, and unified United States, where everyone has the ability to live with dignity and respect. This is what those who formed the labor movement, many of them immigrants themselves, would’ve wanted. In the face of division, darkness, and oppression, labor must be a unifying force.
Roxana Rivera is vice president of 32BJ SEIU.