The President's Column: “Making America Great Again” Means Turning Back the Clock

July 9, 2018

But our strength and unity will ensure the forward march of progress.

Since collective bargaining rights were written into law eight decades ago there hasn’t been such a hostile political environment for workers to negotiate contracts with their employers. Prior to that period, “labor relations” were often dictated by gun thugs and other hirelings at the service of Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, the coal barons of West Virginia and Kentucky, and their corporate brethren.

Sure, times have changed. It’s rare these days for the police to be called to break up a strike or picket line. (Of course, it’s also rare these days for unions to call a strike or run a picket line at all.) Instead of brute force, corporate America now has those in The White House, Congress and the courts to do their bidding.

These days recall a line by the songwriter and progressive hero Woody Guthrie: “I’ve seen lots of funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”

All the levers of federal power are in the hands of anti-worker, pro-corporate, far-right decision makers. The deck is stacked against working people. The Trump administration has turned every cabinet post into the opposite of its declared mission: the Environmental Protection Agency now eliminates environmental protections; the Department of Education now subverts public education, and so on.

And in the same way, the National Labor Relations Board, which was established to protect labor’s collective bargaining rights, has been turned into an anti-labor agency.

In keeping with the current trend, employers who stiff their workers or discriminate against them recently got a big lift from the U.S. Supreme Court, which last month issued a major ruling, making it easier for companies to avoid employee lawsuits. The ruling upheld employers’ use of class-action waivers in arbitration agreements. By signing these controversial provisions, workers give up their right to band together on issues like unpaid overtime and suing in court for back pay or damages, and are instead forced to face arbitrators on their own.

By the time you read this, the Supreme Court will likely have handed down another anti-worker decision; in Janus v. American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees the justices are expected to rule against school teachers, bus drivers, mail carriers, firefighters and other public workers, essentially declaring the public sector as “right to work” territory, eliminating union dues as a part of union membership.

Our employers are well aware of this poisonous political environment. So where does that leave us? What do we have to do now to win new contracts that protect our jobs and our families? The answer is obvious— keep on doing what we’ve always done: educate, organize, mobilize, more than ever before.

When our union was first organized in 1932, it had only 5000 members. When 1199 decided to organize hospital workers in New York City, it was illegal to do so. Union leaders and members went to jail. Today we are 400,000 strong in five states and the District of Columbia. 1199ers have always been ready to walk the walk. A few years ago, we were told we were dreaming to think we could win a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Now that is the demand of millions of workers across the country, including many who have already secured that and more.

The odds have never favored working people. That’s why we have a union. Individually we have no power to demand a fair deal from our employers; it’s only because of our numbers—and when we stand united — that we begin to balance the scales.

We are living through a particularly difficult period when the ruling elites are doing whatever they can to destroy the gains of democratic movements—whether they are for civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights. And turning back the clock to the days when there were no such rights is what the man in the White House means by “making America great again.” And even when our employers don’t subscribe to that message, the environment has been created to encourage them to take back the gains we have made to protect our jobs, our families and our retirement security.

This is not the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last. We’ve faced hard times and hostile forces before, and we’ve prevailed. We win when we’re united and willing to fight. I’m confident that, when you show the employers you are ready to do whatever it takes, there ain’t no stopping us. Let’s do it.

- 1199 Magazine | May / June 2018