Workers are winning the debate

Workers are winning the debate
© Getty Images

During the primary races in 2016, there were nearly two dozen debates, plus another three debates during the general election. But not a single one addressed how any of the candidates running for president of the United States would empower workers to organize in a union. The issue could not be more urgent for Americans at a time when politicians are relentlessly giving handouts to rich and powerful corporations, all while pointing the finger at immigrants and people of color for our hard times.

But just three years later, it is a different world. Democratic presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and Beto O’Rourke have already released strong detailed plans that would make it easier for millions of workers to join together on the job. These plans are not just words on a page. Candidates are hitting the campaign trail to underscore their proposals to ensure every worker has the opportunity to join a union.

This past weekend, the leading Democratic presidential candidates spoke at a labor union summit in California hosted by more than 1,000 janitorial, security, fast food, health care, and gig workers who are organizing to win a union on the job. It is no accident that the issue of worker power is now emerging as a top issue in the race for the 2020 election, even after it remained on the sidelines of the presidential debate three years ago. It is happening because workers across the country have been demanding it.

ADVERTISEMENT

Strikes have broken out in nearly every corner of the country, spanning red states and blue states, and hitting powerful corporations across a range of industries. In 2018, more workers in the United States went on strike than in any year since 1986. This wave of walkouts has continued, as 30,000 Los Angeles public school teachers and 31,000 Stop and Shop workers went on strike earlier this year, while 46,000 workers at General Motors are still on strike today. Cooks at McDonalds and drivers at gig companies such as Uber and Lyft also waged historic strikes this year.

This action is translating into breakthrough victories. The mere threat of a strike by 85,000 workers at the health care company Kaiser Permanente earlier this month resulted in a landmark agreement on a new contract. Following determined and persistent organizing, more than 40,000 child care workers across California now have a path to join together in a union thanks to new legislation signed by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.

Unfortunately, however, too few working people are represented by forward thinking elected leaders like those out in California. Across the country, many lawmakers at the state level and in Washington wake up every day trying to put more power in the hands of corporations instead of regular Americans. These attacks hurt all workers in the United States, not simply the one in 10 workers who enjoy union membership today.

That is why the two million members of the union I lead are conditioning their endorsement in the 2020 presidential election on support for Unions for All, a far reaching demand to overhaul our decades old labor laws and empower every worker, regardless of their employer, with the opportunity to join a union. Our demand for Unions for All includes four critical parts.

First, the next president must bring workers, employers, and government together at industry bargaining tables to negotiate wages, benefits, and labor conditions. Second, states and cities must be allowed to innovate and find new ways to empower workers to organize in unions above the limits of federal labor laws. Third, federal workers and contractors, as well as all private sector workers in jobs supported by taxpayer dollars, must be paid at least $15 an hour and have the opportunity to join a union. Fourth, every major economic plan, including proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, must have good union jobs at the center.

There is no question that our demand for Unions for All is ambitious. But with hundreds of thousands of working people walking off the job across the country, it is clear that bold change is needed to address the crisis of racial and economic inequality in the United States. Until our elected leaders take action, it is also clear that this demand for Unions for All echoing across the country will grow louder in the months to come.

Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union.