Even though Ralph Chaplin wrote the song “Solidarity Forever” in 1915 for the Industrial Workers of World War I, its refrain is as relevant and important today as it was more than 100 years ago: “When the union’s inspiration thru the worker’s blood shall run, there can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun, yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one, but the union makes us strong. Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.”
Members of Local 237 will join other unions to show their support of the sentiments expressed in the song when we celebrate Labor Day with a parade along Fifth Avenue on Sept. 8. As we march, we keep in mind the words of other great advocates of labor unions, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and even the Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said that America was better off because of unions.
Dr. King told us, “The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standard of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”
President Kennedy said, “Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.”
President Eisenhower commented that “Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
But we know that in this political climate, parades are not enough. I recently delivered that message as the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Texas Teamster’s Black Caucus. I told the audience this: “Today, in America, union membership is an endangered species. But, unlike pandas or dolphins, union members still have opportunity and resources to fight back. I say this, standing in a state with union membership at only 4.7 percent and where, for six decades, the falsely named, ‘Right to Work Law’ has been in effect, making it one of the first in the nation. At least here, in New York, we’re fortunate to have a governor, Andrew Cuomo, who gets it. He knows that we are not the enemy, and he shows it in many ways. For example, when he took pre-emptive measures way back in April, before the Janus decision became a reality, and signed into law safeguards to lessen the blow from the Supreme Court’s disastrous, anti-union vote.
I’m a realist. I understand it’s no coincidence that in the state with the highest percentage of union workers in the nation, unions are still a force to be reckoned with. I saw the sharp contrast in Texas and it makes you wonder, why is there such a difference in attitude toward unions, among the states? Here’s what I came up with: Labor leaders in New York have made it crystal clear to our elected officials and candidates that unions built the middle class in America. We just want to make sure that there will be a place in it for our own children. You can’t fault us for that! And, we use every opportunity to remind them that labor still has a powerful voice and millions of votes. That always gets their attention.
And one more thing: In New York, there is a sense that whether you’re in a public or private union that it doesn’t matter, we’re all in the same family. An assault on one is an assault on all of us. That same spirit was seen during the push to convene a constitutional Convention. It would have had a devastating effect on public sector pensions and other benefits the Constitution guaranteed. But the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated because all unions got together to defeat it.
We also sought and received the help of non-union groups who saw the push to lessen the role of labor unions for what it really is: An assault on democracy perpetrated by the special interests of the well-funded corporate 1 percent. So, as we prepare to celebrate Labor Day, my message for all of you is: Let’s walk with pride and purpose because extinction is forever. But, if we remain united and focused, we can avoid the fate of the once powerful dinosaur. As union members, now is the time to stand our ground and fight the common enemy. If we don’t seize the opportunity, we will wind up in the museum.”