The President's Column: Labor Is Very Much Alive

April 30, 2018

West Virginia teachers prove that working people are still in the fight.

ggresham_fa.jpgby George Gresham

These are tough times for working people. Nothing new about that, as I’m sure you know. But they’re about to get a whole lot tougher as the U.S. Supreme Court gets ready to destroy public workers’ rights to collective bargaining. This has been at the top of the wish list of corporate America for years. They’ve just been waiting for the right moment, which is at hand.

You may remember that when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, President Obama nominated a prestigious jurist to fill the vacancy. Republican leadership refused to even meet with the nominee. Instead, they waited until President Trump was elected and filled the position with Neil Gorsuch, one of the most right-wing judges in the country. Now, with an anti-labor majority on the Court, millions of school teachers, fire fighters, mail carriers, bus drivers and others who work for our city, state and federal governments are in danger of losing their collective bargaining rights; their unions in danger of losing their lifeblood, union dues.

The labor movement has been in decline for over 30 years, so you’d think this would be the death blow. But you’d be wrong. Even in the face of the complete takeover of all branches of the federal government by forces hostile to workers and their unions, the most amazing thing happened last month in West Virginia. This is a state where public workers are forbidden by law to strike, where they have no collective bargaining rights, where they have no contract and where teacher pay is ranked 48th lowest of the 50 states.

Yet in all 55 counties in the state, 35,000 West Virginia school teachers went out on strike. They were joined by cafeteria workers, bus drivers, janitors and other school employees. The strike followed nearly two weeks of negotiations during which teachers were informed they’d be receiving an insulting one percent salary bump that basically amounted to a pay cut once rising health care premiums, inflation, and cost of living were taken into consideration.

But after nine days on strike, the teachers won—coming to an agreement with the Republican governor and state lawmakers on a five percent raise and a hold on raising health insurance costs. Moreover, the agreement extends to all state workers, not just those in the schools.

I tell you about these wonderful, strong West Virginia teachers not just to let you share their marvelous story, but to impress on you the first and most important lesson of their victory. They won because they were organized, they were involved from bottom to top and they were united. There can never be enough member involvement. It is how workers win.

Whatever wages, health and pension benefits, training opportunities, job security, vacation and sick days we have in our contracts are there because 1199ers were willing to fight for them. Nothing is ever given to us.

A union is not its elected officers or its headquarters offices. The union is its members, and a union is strong only to the extent that the members are involved and ready to fight for what is rightfully theirs. We who are 1199 officers and staff think we know our members pretty well, but you want to know who else also knows our members well? Our employers. They know if we’re united, if our members are ready to mobilize and fight. And they know when we’re not. This year, we are bargaining contracts on behalf of more than 150,000 members. When a contract expires and negotiations begin for a new one, everything is on the table—wages, benefits, days off, rights on the job, retirement security, etc. This is the time for every member to get involved in whatever way you can—from attending chapter and department meetings and keeping informed to joining with our other sisters and brothers on the job in letting the employer know we’re ready to do whatever it takes to fight for our jobs, our patients and our families. Contract negotiations are not a spectator sport. We all need to get in the game.

- 1199 Magazine | March/April 2018