The President's Column: We can't let up the fight. We need to unite.October 21, 2021
No Matter How Tough are the Times
These are hard times for working people. Good paying jobs with benefits are scarce. Employers continue to dig in their heels against union organizing and union contracts. And on top of that, we have the pandemic that continues to rage on with the Delta variant. So we’re all living in hard times. We know that our unity and determination are what have always made the difference. Tough times only get easier when we band together, unite and fight for what is rightfully ours.
These were my thoughts when I heard the news in August that Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, died while on a camping trip with his family. I had a lot of respect for Brother Trumka, and it only grew when Barack Obama first ran for President in 2008. Trumka, who was white, started to encounter white union members who told him they had reservations about voting for an African American candidate.
In response, he began touring union halls and factory floors, confronting the issue. “Our kids are moving away because there’s no future here,” Trumka told a convention for steelworkers. “And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for people like us, and you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?”
These were Trumka’s people—the steel workers and coal miners of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He grew up there, the son of a coal miner and himself a miner as a young man. He eventually rose to become head of the United Mineworkers Union before leading the AFL-CIO. As healthcare workers, we know what it is to work under dangerous conditions. Like heathcare workers, few work harder than mineworkers laboring underground in pitch darkness, breathing in poisonous coal dust. The organization of their union and the achievement of decent wages, safer conditions and health benefits, was a battle soaked in blood spilled by workers during the “coal wars” with national guardsmen, sheriff’s deputies and hired thugs, all operating on behalf of the mine owners.
Trumka knew this history well. It would be good for all of us know it too, because history’s lessons are no less valid for healthcare workers than for coal miners. Employers are not benevolent. Some of them may be friendly people, but they are not our friends. Whatever wages, benefits and working conditions we have achieved have come because we were united, we demanded them and we fought for them. Nothing was given to us.
A century before Richard Trumka was born, Frederick Douglass wrote: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”
The growth of 1199 from a 5,000-member New York City drugstore workers union to a 450,000-member union representing every sector of health care— geographically stretching from the Florida Keys to the Canadian border—is a story of many decades of struggle. Our history includes workers going to jail for the right to organize, months-long strikes for union recognition through both brutal winters and summer heat, and massive marches on state capitals for healthcare spending. Often some of our struggles are not so dramatic but are equally essential—filing grievances, departmental meetings, walk-ins on the bosses, informational picketing.
I mention all of this because it is important to understand that what we have won so far can also be lost if we are not united and ready to fight. They say that freedom is a constant struggle. So too is the fight for workers’ rights.
Obviously, all of our employers are more powerful than any one of us workers. We only have strength when we unite together. That is the basic premise of a union. The old saying that “You can’t fight City Hall” only serves “City Hall.” But we 1199ers know that we can indeed fight powerful forces because we have done it before—year after year. Our veteran members know this, but it is a lesson that we all must re-learn time and again.
I hope you are all ready to unite and fight. Because we’re going to have to do just that in these hard times.