The President’s Column: Solidarity Matters

October 20, 2023

Let’s not forget that 1199 is part of a larger labor movement. Worker wins in any industry benefit us all.

This past Labor Day, I got to thinking how so many people in our country give no thought to the meaning of the occasion. It’s the end of summer, time to get in a final barbecue, maybe get the kids ready to go back to school, or maybe just kick back and relax during a long weekend.

Actually, Labor Day came about 140 years ago, when New York City’s early trade unions were fighting for an eight-hour workday and demanded recognition for the achievements and worth of the working class. Those achievements and their worth are still awaiting proper recognition. (The CEOs—American oligarchs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos— are celebrated in the media, which, of course, they own 365 days a year.)

Especially this year, with labor organizing and ferment on the rise, and with public opinion polls showing 70 percent approval rate for unions, it is time we all showed our solidarity.

A year ago, the big labor story was the explosion of new organizing by rank-and-file workers in chains and corporations like Amazon, Starbucks, Chipotle and Trader Joes. This year, a number of the bigger traditional unions— under new leadership—have confronted the country’s biggest corporations.

Mainly because some of them are celebrities, the 160,000-strong strike of movie and TV actors now in its fourth month has gotten some national attention. Their 11,000 colleagues who write the scripts had just reached a tentative agreement at press time after being on strike since May. Typically, the CEOs who run the entertainment studios and pay themselves hundreds of millions of dollars to do so, show little understanding, let alone sympathy for the writers, actors, crews and Teamsters who do the actual work.

This summer, UPS was pushed to the wall by a threatened strike by 340,000 Teamsters Union members—it would have been the largest single-employer strike in US history—before finally settling a contract. In addition to substantial wage and benefit increases, including for part-timers, the contract gives the workers new safety protections. Truck drivers and warehouse workers are going to look at this contract and say: “I want my pay to go up. I want to be protected from heat hazards. I want to be treated fairly in the workplace.” This contract is a powerful indication that joining the union gets you those things.

Roughly 75,000 healthcare workers at the giant California healthcare system, Kaiser Permanente mounted a three-day strike in early October. Members of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West voted to strike over complaints that pay has not kept pace with inflation and understaffing has led to long wait times and the neglect of patients.

Also dramatic was the fight of the United Auto Workers for a fair contract. The pay disparity between the auto industry oligarchs and the women and men who
do the actual work is stark. Mary Barra, for example, has received more than $200 million in compensation since becoming GM's CEO in 2014. Barra was paid 362 times more than the automaker's median employee in 2022.

"The CEOs gave themselves 40 percent pay increases in the last four years alone," United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain said from the picket line. "And they want to call us greedy." Workers across the country are paying attention. According to CNN polling, 75 percent of Americans support the UAW and only 19 percent support the bosses.

In the first half of 2023, the Big Three automakers made a combined $23 billion in profits— up 80 percent from the same time period last year. Over the past decade, these same companies made roughly $250 billion in profits in North America alone. That’s a quarter of a trillion dollars. Meantime, the average wage for American autoworkers has decreased by 30 percent over the past two decades, after adjusting for inflation.

It's the same age-old story across industries—oil and chemical, pharmaceuticals, banking, retail sales, mass media, or shipping or healthcare. We who do the work, who produce the goods, who deliver the services, and provide the healthcare, never ever get the respect nor the compensation due to us unless we organize, unite and fight for it.

“Power concedes nothing without a struggle,” Frederick Douglass wrote 150 years ago. “It never has and it never will.” We 1199ers know this well but it always helps to remind ourselves.