Bitter fruit

The movement for unions and justice fights on

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 8/31/21

REGION — It’s not only about wages, and it’s not only about better jobs. It’s about uniting workers into one voice, and that voice is calling for justice.

That’s the …

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Bitter fruit

The movement for unions and justice fights on

Posted

REGION — It’s not only about wages, and it’s not only about better jobs. It’s about uniting workers into one voice, and that voice is calling for justice.

That’s the point from the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation (HVALF), which advocates for better working conditions on the one hand, and a just society on the other.

Unions are changing, HVALF leaders say, and unions are staying the same. Changing in the sense of broadening their perspective—the needs of the worker, writ large—and the same trouble, the same disease, causing the same problems that it did in the 19th century, as the modern union movement took shape.

Strength in numbers

The HVALF brings many unions—nurses, teachers, construction workers, public servants and more—under one umbrella. “We’re a federation,” said Sparrow Tobin, HVALF president, and the group provides “education, organization and solidarity.”

Solidarity means numbers. More numbers, more power.

“When you get together, you have the power to negotiate with the bosses,” Tobin said.

The group is part of the AFL-CIO and covers seven counties in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Once upon a time, unions focused on the wages their members earned, their working conditions and the time they spent on the job. Since then, that has expanded to include society-level issues, basically anything union workers—and others—need. “Healthcare, daycare, infrastructure, access to WiFi, good jobs,” Tobin said. “We’re also looking to create career jobs, where people get pensions, and [earn enough] to sustain a family. Any worker issue is our issue.”

When the government is the boss

Obviously politics and protest come with the territory. A look over “Labor Notes,” an activist-focused website, blog and movement in general, will highlight the major political work that goes into furthering labor’s cause. But protest matters too, said Tobin and Sandra Oxford, HVALF executive director. Not just strikes, although that’s what unions are famous for, but speaking out at government meetings and joining causes that would affect union members.

Or anybody, really.

Consider the move to privatize nursing homes. “We have to fight against the idea that everything needs to make a profit,” Tobin said. Or policing: The unions have turned out at Sullivan County government meetings to weigh in on that too. “At the state level, the AFL (American Federation of Labor) addressed brutality, and is trying to find a balance with policing, making sure the punishment fits the crime,” said Oxford.

The unions have supported Black Lives Matter. They’ve spoken out about hunger, she said, about mental health care, and what happens to a community when the services disappear.

“I’m hopeful that we’d be able to talk about these things, and a lot of the workers are just trying to balance” the challenges in their lives, Oxford said. “The rank-and-file members have a very good sense of what they need.”

‘To serve the common good’

Tobin and Oxford described a shifting landscape with the same fundamental problems faced by workers a century ago.

Management. Wages. The changes in the economy, technology and America’s attitudes toward work that have pushed people to work harder, for longer, past retirement.

There are a lot of ways businesses are reclassifying workers, they said. As “subcontractors,” for instance. They aren’t members, but “we’re fighting for them,” Oxford said, “to get them the benefits they deserve.”

Those benefits haven’t changed much: healthcare, better wages, “respecting their time off,” she said. “What labor fought for, we’re trying to adapt to the new economy.”

Tobin and Oxford see a focus on profit that shortchanges the communities. It has repercussions. Poor health benefits—like high-deductible insurance, when people can’t afford the deductible—mean that taxpayers ultimately pay for the illnesses that result.

What happened?

Labor’s great moment was in the mid-20th century. It changed, Tobin said, when then-President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ union.

And since then, “different laws have damaged the labor movement. We built a dam against corporate greed, but the other side picked holes. We’re trying to pass laws to rebuild that dam.”

Laws are still on the books, but massive corporations “break the law and just pay the fine.”

Another problem is that jobs have gone overseas. The move has put Americans out of jobs, they said.

In some jobs, unions are still strong. Government workers, teachers, construction, public works and public safety employees are still union members.

One might point out, though, that many of those jobs are being privatized, especially public works and public safety. Unions have to work to keep the union jobs in those departments.

None of it is easy.

“The cards are stacked against us,” Oxford said. “The PRO Act would be a game changer. (see box above right). And Biden has done an incredible amount of work.” But organizing, as always, is an uphill battle.

“We knew we’d lose two out of three [attempts to organize]. Those are very tough. But the employer always has the upper hand and people are very dependent on their job.”

She likened the situation to marriage to an abusive spouse, who apologizes and promises change. The abused spouse stays—perhaps this time will be different—but nothing improves.

“We’re sussing out the challenges,” Tobin said. “We’re not afraid to take on the tough topics. Our mission is to serve the common good.”

The future

“It feels like a new day here,” Oxford said. “It’s making a commitment to the community. It’s not just about unions, it’s about relationships. Labor cannot be worried about their three-year contracts. We have to bargain for the community.”

Groups like HVALF are also adapting to the changing work world.

“‘Adapt’ is a good word,” Oxford said. “Now you have people shopping for you, delivering for you, it makes the gig economy so much more important... Big Tech did better than Pfizer, Moderna.”

The jobs are changing. Part of labor’s role, maybe, is to make sure that support is there so people aren’t left behind.

“Our goal is to make sure that good jobs are replacing the old jobs,” Tobin said. “Unions are only as strong as our people.”

In a negotiation, he said, the union rep isn’t working just for him or herself; the benefit goes to all. And now extend that to the community, to the world at large. “We can negotiate anything if we have enough solidarity.”

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