A Labor Day Message for New York and America
By Frank Spotorno
If you’re a friend of labor, it's hard to be joyous this Labor Day.
Unions, the vehicle for workers' collective action, now represent just 6 percent of the private-sector workforce, and work in the 21st century has transformed so completely that many see organized labor as irrelevant. Back in 2006, unions were at 9 percent of the private-sector workforce.
Many in the labor movement talk the talk, but few walk the walk. On Thursday, Aug. 27, “Bring Our Jobs Home” gave a rally at Times Square and I invited many political leaders, businessman and businesswomen – especially the five borough presidents from New York City – to speak, including the Hon. Gov. Andrew Cuomo himself.
The turnout was fair. One vice president from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters showed up, and one candidate running for the presidency of the United States showed up, as well as others. None of the borough presidents showed up, and the governor himself never responded. We had a full media blowout, but many others could have come.
Unfortunately, now we know who walks the walk and who talks the walk; none of our U.S. senators has showed up.
I always thought, “If you build it, they will come.” In a society where entitlements are a secondary choice of maintaining one’s existence, who needs collective bargaining anymore?
Today is Labor Day, and a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that more than 40 percent of the American workforce exists in the freelance world. Some are there by choice, but many would rather have full-time employment – a stable 40-hour work week with good health insurance – than work irregular hours and jump from job to job without any stability, and living lives that are insecure.
If this is the true meaning of Labor Day, I'm ashamed that none of the five borough presidents from NYC had the decency to rally in support of the thousands of families they represent in each of the five boroughs. This is no way to pay the bills from month to month, much less support a family and send a kid to college nowadays.
Much has changed, and much has not changed since President Harry Truman told workers assembled in Detroit's Cadillac Square in 1948 that “working people need every ounce of strength they possess to meet today’s problems. Forces in the world, and in our government, would destroy free labor.”
Sadly, as Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., runs for the presidency, he wears it as a badge of courage that he faced down and broke organized labor in his state.
Close to home, another candidate running for the presidency, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., had said that the nation’s teachers unions need a “punch in the face” because they are the single most destructive force in public education.”
Recently, Christie vetoed a bill that would have required the State of New Jersey’s tax dollars be used to purchase products from American companies for all state agencies, commissions and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It also required construction firms, suppliers and other vendors under public contracts to use or supply materials produced in the United States.
This is another common-sense law that puts American companies and workers first. It would increase job creation here in the USA and do so with our own tax dollars.
I vehemently disagree with Gov. Christie, who lamely explained his veto by saying, “Rather than helping Americans, these bills will simply drive up the price of doing business, and threaten job creation.”
In recent years, especially in other parts of our country, many labor leaders are starting to wake up. They are finally getting the message that I've worked so hard on this journey in rebuilding the American Dream for every available resident who wants a good-paying job with benefits and representation.
The UAW, the mother of all old-line unions and the bogeyman blamed for the demised of Detroit, is still relevant. Up against a decimated industry, domestic de-industrialization and the transplanting of factories to Mexico, China and the nonunion U.S. South, the USW is reviving.
Under the keen leadership of President Dennis Williams, the UAW has gained membership every year for the last four years and is busy trying to organize Volkswagen and Nissan in right-to-work states, where the conditions are hostile.
They haven't given up the America dream, recognizing that campaigning is hard and long.
What their examples demonstrate is that, despite plenty of reasons for pessimism, forward motion is happening, building on proven traditions of organizing, community building and using the levers of the state when possible. Unions hate rewriting the playbook, recognizing that workers need to access allies, the courts, and use of new technology to further workers’ rights. The fight for $15 per hour, the movement to increase the minimum wage – a movement that is notching some remarkable success in winning better pay for a workforce that is largely unorganized – suggests progress can be made if workers can make concerted connection to consumers and supporters.
“Although we should never be intimidated by organized labor’s past, we should allow ourselves to be inspired by it,” wrote professor Richard Greenwald in a recent Daily News op-ed piece.
In 1909, 20,000 mostly young immigrant women, Italians and Jews went out on strike in the women's garment industry. The “Uprising of the 20,000” became the largest strike by the female workforce in American history. The odds were against them. Surrounding them was a moribund union movement, one that either ignored or scoffed at the idea of women – much less immigrant women – becoming effective workers and strikers. Their employers were organized against them and equipped with an army of unemployed workers ready to take their jobs.
Unlike today, the strikers had gutsy leaders who were able to connect their struggle to a larger community of concerned Americans.
They won huge victories, including a set 52-hour workweeks and paid holidays, and not only organizing most of the city's garment workers in the course of the fight, but setting the stage for several more years of labor struggle that won more victories for the largely immigrant workers.
As workers in old-line industries wake up, workers in emerging ones are coming to realize that unions are not anathema to their experience.
Here, the hero of the day is Rome Aloise, international vice president and secretary/treasurer of Teamsters Local 853 on the west coast. The Teamsters have been building on their history of aggressive organizing efforts, by targeting the transport drivers who ferry the highly paid tech workers from San Francisco to the Silicon Valley headquarters of tech giants such as Google, Apple and Yahoo, among others. The companies and this industry, which tends to consider itself above it all, seemed impossible. The Teamsters might have found the wedge into the technology economy through these drivers, but now it's time to use the approach on the East Coast, led by our international vice president and secretary/treasurer of Teamsters Local 210 George Miranda.
We will have to watch and see how this unfolds on both coasts.
What we need is the spirit of past performances to re-light the spark once again in the American workforce, throughout our communities – especially in the private sector – simply by bringing back the “Union Label:” If it's not made here, backed with the union label, leave it at the port.
As the great Jimmy Hoffa Sr. said, “Put it down, put it down.”
Finally, as Truman said in Detroit: “The gains of labor were not accomplished at the rest of the nation. Labor gains contributed to the nation's general prosperity.”
The success of labor has never been and never will be an “us verses them” thing. It has always been and will always be a “we” thing.
Let's remember this on this Labor Day, 2015.
Thanks to Richard Greenwald, professor of history and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, for his op-ed in the Daily News on Sept. 6, which inspired me to write this message.
Frank Spotorno, is the co-founder of Bring our Jobs Home and a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, 2016.