This commentary by NYSUT President Andy Pallotta first aired on WAMC Northeast Public Radio Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. You can listen online at WAMC.org.
Driving on the Northway recently, I came up behind a blue sedan – American-made, by the way.
On the rear bumper was a red, white and blue sticker. It read: “The Labor Movement: The folks who brought you the weekend.”
While only a bumper sticker, it was a well-timed reminder of the many contributions the American labor movement has made to improving the lives of workers while, at the same time, contributing to the strength and vitality of our nation.
As we prepare for the long Labor Day weekend, I think it’s important to acknowledge two truths behind this bumper sticker.
The first truth is that Labor Day is more than barbecues, baseball and time to enjoy the last, final sunsets of summer. Labor Day is our chance to remember that the 40-hour work week; health benefits; dignified retirement and safety rules that protect us on the job didn’t just happen by coincidence. The “weekend” wasn’t willingly conveyed as a gift by generous business owners and benevolent bosses.
No, the collective strength of unions – and the voices of workers who fought for and won their fair share through painful strikes and difficult negotiations over decades – is why so many American workers enjoy higher pay, good benefits, safety rules and secure retirements.
The second truth is this: The wealthy elite and big business don’t like the fact that strong unions give workers a voice. They want to lower pay and reduce benefits so they can have more for themselves. If they silence unions, their twisted thinking goes, workers won’t be able to organize and fight effectively for a greater share of the profits.
For decades, the Koch Brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council and a cohort of right-wing think tanks have been funding attacks on workers and their unions. They spend tens of millions of dollars a year –and more -- to weaken unions, and to silence the voice of workers. They won a victory in June when the Supreme Court ruled against unions in a case known as Janus v. AFSCME.
What we’re finding, however, is that Americans – and American union members – are smart. They know that income inequality is at record levels. They know that workers haven’t shared in the profits earned by American companies. They know that their own wages haven’t kept pace, even as CEOs and Wall Street rake in millions.
And, they know that unions are still the best chance workers like them have to get ahead economically. In fact, a recent poll by Pew Research shows 55 percent of Americans view unions favorably, compared to 33 percent who hold an unfavorable view.
That overwhelming majority knows what I firmly believe:
Unions will continue to be the collective voice for working families.
Despite the Janus decision, Americans – and American workers – will continue to support unions as the best chance for working families to stand up to inequality …. get ahead economically …. and to have a meaningful voice in what happens to them in the workplace.
That bumper sticker celebrating the labor movement is right on target. Unions gave us the weekend – and much, much more. It’s why unions will continue to be a powerful force serving workers, and the entire nation.
Andy Pallotta, a former elementary teacher, is president of the more than 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.