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There’s still work to do: vote ‘Yes’ on Proposal 2

Jimmy Settles

Jimmy Settles

OP-ED
By Jimmy Settles, UAW VP

As I talk to people in my hometown of Detroit, I’m confronted with a question more often than I would like. I hear it asked by young people frequently, but increasingly I’m hearing it from veterans of the workforce, too. The issue at stake is collective bargaining, and the question is, “Why do unions still matter?” There’s another question implicit there. Even if unions and collective bargaining do matter, why should you give them your support?

These are proper questions, and ones that deserve thorough answers in a time when the average worker probably doesn’t belong to a union (and may not even know someone who does). They are hard questions, and ones that require honest answers in a time when many of the most important gains that organized labor has made throughout the years are now enshrined in law. They are acute questions that desperately need factual answers in a time when both workers and business are vying for your vote on Proposal 2 to the Michigan Constitution — a proposal that would grant private and public sector workers a constitutional right to join a union and collectively bargain. They are questions I hope to answer over the course of three articles in the coming weeks.

Now, I am a vice president of the United Auto Workers; but today, I’m writing as a lifelong Detroiter, as an African American, and as a concerned citizen. I’m also writing today as a man old enough to remember the past. I am writing with the hope that my experience can help acquit this next generation of their condemnation to repeat it.

I hear people say often that unions and collective bargaining were a necessary and important part of our history. They helped win better wages and working conditions for the worker, unemployment insurance for those out of work, social security for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor and Medicare for the aged. But now, the battle is over. Like a punch-drunk boxer too proud to admit he’s past his prime, unions have stayed in the ring too long.

It’s true that unions played a significant role in our collective history and won crucial gains that helped all people who work — no matter if they were in a union or not. They won holiday pay, sick leave and weekends. They stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Moreover, the UAW provided Dr. King with the financial and organizational support he needed when he was planning his first march in Detroit. That’s because both Dr. King and the UAW knew our causes were inextricably linked. Without economic justice, there could be no social justice. Without workers’ rights, there could be no civil rights.

Our opponents knew this too, which is why they struggled then and continue working today to foment racial resentment in the middle class in order to roll back hard-won gains like voting rights, Affirmative Action and collective bargaining rights. The fact is that collective bargaining agreements in both the public and private sector were one of the most successful tools in creating racially integrated workplaces and giving many African Americans the opportunity to enter the middle class. It’s largely due to unions that a generation of African American men and women were able to achieve what we used to call “the American Dream.”

The American Dream of our parents and grandparents was a modest one. They wanted to break their backs so their kids didn’t have to. In return, they asked a decent wage and benefits so they could provide their children the opportunities they never had. There, they were successful again. Thanks to organized labor winning the battles we did, America became the biggest producer of the two things that drive a great economy: hard workers and entrepreneurs who lived down the street from the people who work for them.

Today, we’ve lost one part of that equation, and in the process, we’ve lost the American Dream. We’ve lost that insight into where our money comes from. We’ve become so focused on gaining opportunity and wealth for ourselves that we’ve forgotten about our communities. We’ve forgotten that a rising tide should lift all boats, not just yachts. We’ve forgotten that a rising tide has to start from the low tide. And we’ve seen the results of our collective amnesia — longer hours for less pay, shrinking mobility and growing poverty in the richest nation on earth.

When the dentist in Detroit forgets that the reason her billings are up is because a bunch of autoworkers with dental insurance just returned to the line, then it’s easy to drive away in a new Lexus and wonder why they need her support. When the local diner forgets that 60 percent of the take-out orders during lunchtime come from city employees making a good wage, it’s easy for the waiter to get jealous of their benefits instead of realizing that the tips he survives on come from middle class jobs. When the ophthalmologist forgets that a union-negotiated vision insurance for their employees, it’s easy to wonder whether unions are relevant anymore as he dines at fine restaurants. And all this is made possible by our collective failure to remind people of how the economy works.

You see, it’s not organized labor’s successes that weigh on my mind. It’s our failures.

Today, when I hear stories of young men and women being asked for private information like access to their social media accounts as a condition of employment, I’m reminded of a time at before unions at Ford when workers were subjected to random search of their households to ensure they were living properly according to Henry Ford’s standards. When I see young people today who did everything right — who went out and took on student loan debt, got the degree they needed — but enter the labor market to find that all the good jobs have been shipped overseas, I’m reminded of the company store.

When I watched President Obama sign his first piece of legislation, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, I was proud. It’s a good piece of legislation, and an important step forward. But I also thought on the UAW pioneer Caroline Dawson Davis. Davis served as the director of the UAW’s Women’s Department from her 1948 appointment by UAW President Walter Reuther until 1973, and gave fierce testimony before Congress, proclaiming, “Unequal pay is immoral.” I’m amazed that it could have taken us over six decades since she first brought this issue to national attention to pass a law that guarantees basic fairness and morality. But I knew that if we could win this battle after decades, then there was still work to be done. The fight for justice isn’t over.

When I talk to an unemployed mother who doesn’t know how she can afford school supplies for her child, I know that this is organized labor’s duty to win the battle for full employment. When I talk to a father who works three jobs just so he can make ends meet, I know that this is organized labor’s duty to win the battle for a decent wage for all. When I talk to a lab technician who had her job outsourced to India, I know that this is organized labor’s duty to win a world in which competition in business is based on innovation and design, not on who can pay their workers the least.

When I look at how far we’ve come, I’m amazed. When I look at how far we have to go, I’m harrowed. But I also know that organized labor has been and still is in the ring fighting — quietly, diligently, in dark places for the weakest among us who don’t have a voice or the strength to stand on their own. We’re there because those people have dignity, and they deserve a shot at a real American Dream. Not the kind where one out of every million kids in the inner city grows up to be a multimillionaire, but the dream where no parent has to worry where the next meal is going to come from.

When I look around and see all that’s left to do, I realize that collective bargaining and unions are more relevant today than they have ever been. I know that Dr. King was right when he said:

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress … The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”

I know today that the same people who fought against civil rights and labor unions then are the ones who have pledged millions of dollars to defeat Proposal 2 now. They are the ones who fought against the things that made this country great — that expanded opportunity to education through Pell Grants and Federal Student Loans, that provided an income to those too old to work, that gave healthcare to the elderly and the infirm, that made it possible for the United States to elect its first African American president. These interests have been on the wrong side of history at every turn, and now they will spend millions upon millions to roll back the clock.

When I recognize that collective bargaining and organized labor are some of the last of our democratic institutions that give ordinary people the power to stand up to these interests with one voice and demand fairness, I remember why I support unions. That’s why I’m voting “Yes” on Proposal 2. I’m asking for your support, too.

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