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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jeff Johnson: Unions remain strong and motivated this Labor Day

Jeff Johnson

My sisters and I grew up during the 1950s and 1960s in a single-parent household on Long Island, N.Y. Mom worked as a secretary for the local Chamber of Commerce and later as an aide to a rising state political star. As a state employee, her wages and benefits – and the prosperity of our family – rose thanks to union-negotiated contracts.

Braces, eyeglasses, asthma medication, broken bones set, vacations, summer programs and a modest house were all provided to my family because workers like my mother had the freedom to negotiate a fair return on the value of their labor. This year on Aug. 15 my mother turned 95 and she is still collecting her union pension.

This is what those who hope to silence unions don’t understand. Unions give voice, dignity, and a portion of the wealth that workers create back to them.

And this is why two months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 41 years of legal precedent with the Janus v. AFSCME decision, unions and the labor movement remain healthy, growing, and working with community partners on strengthening our economy.

While a small percentage of public employees may refuse to pay any dues/fees for the services they receive from their unions, workers are sticking to their unions, much to the chagrin of billionaire-funded groups like the Freedom Foundation.

Teachers in West Virginia, Kansas, Arizona and now here in Washington state have struck for better wages and education funding; a couple of hundred machinists in South Carolina organized with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and let the Boeing Co. know that it can’t run away from workers wanting a voice at work; some 1,200 postdoctoral students at the University of Washington organized with the United Auto Workers; and voters in Missouri overwhelmingly defeated an anti-union “Right-to-Work” (for less) ballot proposition in August.

The hundreds of thousands of nonunion workers in Missouri who voted against that anti-union measure are reflective of the 61 percent of Americans who, according to the latest Gallup survey, approve of unions and think unions ought to have more influence in our country. About 66 percent of workers aged 18-34 are supportive of unions.

In this era of extreme income inequality and climate disruption, what all these workers know is that no law, Supreme Court decision, politician or right-wing funded campaigns will stop workers from coming together for a fair and just workplace or for economic, social and climate justice in our communities.

We need to strengthen Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not dismantle these safety net programs. We need to secure Medicare for All and universal, affordable long-term care. We need to modernize overtime pay rules and other labor laws to restore opportunities for people to have one job and afford to live in the city where they work. We need to rebuild our social and physical infrastructure. And we need to fight back against the fossil fuel industry and the ravages of climate change.

As our state faces another year of smoke pollution from forest fires, as ocean acidification threatens our fishing industry, and as sea-level rise forces evacuations on the coast, we must call the question on the fossil fuel industry that continues to divide us with the false choice between jobs and the environment.

We can create a clean energy economy with good family-wage jobs and protect our environment. Initiative 1631, which is on the November ballot, gives us an opportunity to do just that. I-1631, through a modest carbon fee, leverages investments in clean energy, creates tens of thousands of good jobs across our state, and lowers carbon pollution creating cleaner air, water and forests for our children and grandchildren to enjoy. And it does this while being supportive of those communities and workers that are currently dependent on fossil fuel production for their livelihoods.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

I think he had it right. But our work as labor and community is to grab hold of that moral arc and bend it ever more toward justice.

Happy Labor Day to all and thank you for the work you do.

Jeff Johnson is president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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