The labor movement lives

George Gresham | 5/3/2018, 11:52 a.m.
The labor movement lives
George Gresham

May is Labor History Month. May 1, an international workers’ holiday that originated in the U.S., commemorates labor’s many contributions to our nation. Unions, famed for giving us the eight-hour workday and weekends off, have also raised wages, improved working conditions and increased job security. Also, they are the major force against economic inequality and for democracy.

The labor movement, beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s assaults in the 1980s, together with increased globalization, deregulation and automation, has suffered serious setbacks. Today our movement might be down, but it certainly is not out. That is especially true among civil service workers, who continue to battle not only for their livelihoods but also for essential services important to us all.

Leading the charge have been teachers and other public-school workers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado, Oklahoma and Arizona—five states where wages are generally lower than the national average. Low wages, poor benefits and inadequate working conditions, fueled in most cases by crippling funding reductions, have spurred successful strikes and other job actions.

Contrary to mainstream media reporting, strikers’ concerns extended beyond wages and benefits, and they received strong support from parents and students. The West Virginia teachers, who won all five of their strike demands, held out until raises were granted to all state employees. In all the states, teachers have demanded reforms such as funding for books and supplies, restrictions on class size and enriched after-school programs.

Higher education workers also are demanding fairer compensation for their work. Last month, Harvard research and teaching assistants voted to join the United Automobile Workers. Their victory, which will bring 5,000 workers into the UAW, is among the largest among university workers in the private sector. Also, hundreds of unionized graduate student workers struck Columbia University last month over the university’s unwillingness to negotiate a contract.

The fight for a $15 minimum wage and for the right to join a union is one of today’s key battles against economic inequality and corporate greed. The movement, which is majority women, is an example of how labor can forge alliances with workers outside the traditional labor movement, such as workers’ centers and community organizations, especially those that are committed to social and economic justice.

Each year we set aside the second Sunday in May to celebrate and honor mothers, many of whom are among the most exploited workers in our nation. The holiday began as a plea for peace by Julia Howard Howe, a 19th century suffragist and abolitionist. Howe’s South Boston home, which she shared with her husband, abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe and their six children, was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Today, the leadership of women is central to the fight to loosen the grip of the extremists and Trump minions who have captured both houses of Congress, the White House and far too many state houses. Women were responsible for perhaps the largest demonstrations in our nation on the 45th president’s first day in office. And they have kept up the pressure since. Also, they are beginning to understand that women of color, who bear the heaviest burden, must be included in the leadership of the fightback.

So it is also with young people, who have bravely taken the lead against the scourge of gun violence and the National Rifle Association, which seems to own so many spineless elected officials. Young people also are sick of mounting student debts coupled with increasing income inequality. Traditionally, rates of union membership among young workers have trailed that of older workers, but the Economic Policy Institute found that in 2017, 75 percent of new union members came from people under 34.

Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color and author of the best-selling “Brown Is the New White: How a Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority,” noted in a recent article in The Nation magazine that 45 percent of 17-year-olds are people of color.

Phillips also reminds us that the coalition of people of color and progressive whites constitutes a new multiracial majority in our nation. He warns progressive and the Democratic Party to concentrate its resources on this new majority. “The future of progressive politics in America—and the future of America itself—lies at the intersection of struggles for racial justice and economic equality,” he wrote.

I, too, reject the false dichotomy between racial justice and economic equality. Racial justice cannot be achieved in this nation without tackling economic equality. Nor can we achieve economic equality without tackling racism. Recall that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

This year offers an opportunity to take a major step forward toward Dr. King’s dream of peace, justice and equality. But that won’t be realized unless the multiracial majority floods the polls in November.

George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest health care union in the nation.