Union Matters

George Gresham | 8/6/2015, 10:11 a.m.

With more than 20 candidates running for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations, we health care workers—the largest single sector of the American workforce—are asking ourselves, who will speak for working people? Who will represent our needs and those of our communities?

Right now, the right-wing Republican field looks more like a carnival tent than a serious group of candidates prepared to lead a country of 300 million people for the next four years. So much hateful, cynical and irresponsible rhetoric might grab attention on cable networks, but the speakers clearly aren’t ready for prime time when it comes to leading a great nation.

But the Democratic candidates would do well not to take us for granted. Working people, especially union members, and communities of color have been the Democratic core constituencies for generations. But too often, this support is grasped by the candidates only up to Election Day, when we then become an after-thought.

We working people are fighting an uphill battle. We’re told the economy has recovered from the 2008 financial crash, but it hasn’t gotten better for most workers. The bulk of new wealth has gone to the 1 percent and even the 1 percent of the 1 percent. Jobs, even whole industries, continue to flow overseas, where labor is cheaper and raw materials closer. College education is now unaffordable for the children of most workers. Minimum-wage workers, such as our heroic home health aides and attendants, live in or near poverty. For most working folk, it now takes two jobs to bring home what one job provided a generation ago. Employer resistance—aided by anti-labor politicians and an anti-worker Supreme Court—has destroyed collective bargaining rights for millions of workers. Some 11 million of our immigrant sisters and brothers still live in the shadows, fearful of our own government.

Nice words of concern and support will not be good enough for us in 2016. It is comforting to know candidates understand our concerns, but what will they do about it? What will they do to extend collective bargaining rights? To build upon the Affordable Care Act to expand coverage for millions who are still without health insurance? To secure a living wage for all workers? To enact comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for those who want it? To allow poor, working- and middle-class kids the opportunity to go to college without being trapped in crushing debt?

What will the candidates do to guarantee the right to vote for every person of voting age? To end generations of impunity for police who commit unwarranted violence against us? To cut tens of billions of wasteful military spending and devote the savings to creating good jobs at livable wages? To end the privatization of public schools and provide the funding so that every child has a first-class education? To blunt the drilling, fracking and mining of the fossil fuels that are bringing catastrophe to all humanity?

Our union, 1199SEIU, with 400,000 health care workers from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Florida, has a long history of member mobilization. Over half our members make monthly voluntary contributions to our Martin Luther King Jr. Political Action Fund. Our Get Out the Vote operations are second to none, as our mayors, governors and legislators will tell you.

No organization provided more ground troops in the “battleground states” to elect and re-elect President Barack Obama. Thousands of members took leaves of absence from their jobs and families to do so. Thousands more who could not leave home spent weekends in New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia knocking on doors.

With the Supreme Court giving the green light, the billionaires will hold nothing back to win control of the White House in 2016. No way can a worker-friendly candidate match the Koch brothers and their kind in spending. The Democratic candidate will need more than ever to build an army of volunteers. This is where we come in.

But sometimes our political friends—and those who are not our friends—misunderstand how we work.  We are a democratic union. Our rank-and-file members have to be passionate about a candidate for our endorsement to be effective. A hardworking health care worker with a family will only pack a suitcase to go campaign in a swing state because she is motivated to do so.

So motivate us, candidates.