Unions matter, workers matter
9/19/2013, 5:12 p.m.
This week, Bill Lynch Associates and the Amsterdam News hosted the third annual Tying Communities Together labor breakfast. The breakfast paid tribute to New York’s labor movement, community activists and union leaders.
The citizens of New York owe so much to the men and women who work daily to keep our city up and running. Their efforts and commitment improve our quality of life. Sadly, their quality of life is being challenged.
Labor is in crisis due to a corporate-political alliance that is steadily sweeping away the safety nets that protect us. Minimum wage is at the lowest real-term level it has been since the 1950s. Despite our having a Democratic president and Congress, laws are enacted that further weaken our unions, allowing corporations to profit while we lack. The government underinvests in education and health care, so even the future looks bleak. Due to the fraternity between the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement, minorities predominately feel the choke.
However, we must not mourn. Unions helped build this nation, and so, we matter. The labor movement transformed both the economic and political landscape of this country before, and we can do it again. But the change we need will only happen if we come together—if we organize.
We need to increase our numbers in order to increase our power. The rate of union membership in the public sector fell from 37 percent to 35.9 percent and from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent in the private sector.
The combined rate now stands at just 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2012, and is the lowest enrollment since data collection began in 1983, when the rate was 20.1 percent. Collective bargaining was our bread and butter in the past, and it can still feed us today, but in order to utilize its power, we need to be a collective.
Yet, let us not remain stagnant. The old tactics are useful, but we need to grow and adapt to a changing landscape. With the help of the elected officials on our side, we have to regain our political power. New York City has been fortunate to have great champions of labor—from local leaders like Assemblyman Keith Wright, Assembly Labor Committee Chair Carl Heastie and state Sen. Bill Perkins to our congressional leaders who fight daily on the federal level.
I encourage you to check your local official’s AFL-CIO scorecard to see how many times your House representative has voted in favor of labor.
Leaders like Reps. Charles Rangel, Yvette Clarke, Ed Towns and Gregory Meeks have a lifetime score of 94 percent and above. A high percentage in one year is impressive, but a 94-plus percent lifetime record for members that have been voting for over four decades, like Rangel, shows a commitment to the movement. Leaders like Rangel know that we need to do more than focus solely on workers’ rights. Even though this is a major concern, it is just the immediate concern. The future will bring new challenges, and we need new tactics to combat what is ahead. By becoming a democratizing force, we will expand our power not only in our workplace, but also in our communities. Then we can really create social justice for all.