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Voices of San Diego Labor, Part 1: Organize, Organize, Organize!
A recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) gave hope to many sympathetic observers of the labor movement that it now may have some useful tools to help workers organize against big corporate interests who routinely break the law to defeat their efforts. As the Guardian piece on the new NLRB ruling notes, endless delays in bargaining may no longer be used against workers intent on forming a union.
Harold Meyerson, a longtime, savvy labor reporter has also weighed in to argue that now is the time for U.S. unions to engage in massive organizing drives.
Nelson Lichtenstein, another smart, experienced writer of labor and political history and the author of the forthcoming book with Judith Stein, A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism, argues in the Los Angeles Times that corporate “responsibility” will only come with more union organizing and successful strikes.
Locally, we see trends that only underline the urgency of the kind of organizing that will bring more worker power to previously non-union segments of our economy. As the San Diego Union Tribune reported recently, “San Diego’s Fastest-Growing Jobs Don’t Need a College Degree” thus making workers more easily exploitable and replaceable. The SDUT also reported that the most recent data shows that the wealth gap between women of color and white men is huge.
How does San Diego’s labor movement respond to this emerging landscape?
Brigette Browning, the Secretary-Treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, who I briefly quoted in last week’s Labor Day column, asserts that:
Being a Trade Unionist means that I always put workers first. Protecting good union jobs and organizing for new union jobs is always my first priority. Why? I joined the Labor Movement because I wanted to make the American Dream become a reality for thousands of workers who have been exploited by our Capitalist Society. I think the Labor Movement is the only real check on corporations and it is my life mission to know when I retire workers are in a better place than when I started. They only way we can rebuild the middle class is through unions – not legislation.
In my career I think we have been tremendously successful. I literally never attended a Board of Supervisors meeting before 2018 because there was no point – that Board never prioritized working families. The same at the City Council – we usually had 1 or 2 votes of support and that has completely changed. We have the ability to support workers and campaigns, but I would like to engage more unions to have fights that really build our movement. I’m very excited about unions engaging in strikes again. I think we should help build a better infrastructure for supporting striking workers.
In the future I would like to see more organizing in our local unions. We build a robust movement from the bottom up and real campaigns like the janitors at the County or the UAW had with the UCSD strike create leaders who will take our movement to the next level. I’m also very excited about developing young workers to take over our movement. Their courage and tenacity are greatly needed and bring robust energy which builds momentum to create a real movement. And we should retire and let them take over when the time is right.
Terry Bunting, the Labor Representative from the California Nurses’ Association, agrees with the essence of Browning’s points while adding a crucial emphasis on a broader notion of solidarity that includes things like climate, healthcare, civic engagement, and more:
For me, being part of the union movement is being part of a massive wave of many different types of organizations and people from many walks of life that find a way to come together to fight for justice and fairness. Unions’ emphasis on education and active involvement continually revitalizes the movement and provides meaningful social and civic engagement.
For example, Union nurses have passed laws and won protections that directly help provide safer patient care through staffing standards and by being able to speak up for patients’ safety and dignity.
In San Diego, the work of unions coming together to tackle the climate and environmental emergency is an important development and example of how unions can and should be leading on climate. Unions working together are responsible for winning San Diego’s minimum wage increases and the historic first ever right to sick leave, which help everyone.
One of the biggest obstacles unions face is an onslaught of anti-union laws and policies and negative images being pushed by corporate think tanks. Taking bold positions on healthcare, housing, education, and social justice, shows people that unions fight for the changes that matter to people and counteracts negative and divisive measures.
In March, nurses from UCSD spoke out to the press over severe overcrowding in the ER, a lack of patient privacy, and inadequate supplies. What was the outcome? Management immediately made changes and eased the overcrowding. It has become a major problem again, and the nurses have spoken out recently in the news.
Nurses signed petitions, picketed, and leafletted in front of the hospital over the understaffing of nurses’ aides and how it undermines the safety and dignity of their patients. The result: Last month the hospital announced an increase in the budget for additional staffing for the affected departments.
Having the protection and coordination of the union allows nurses to boldly advocate for safer patient care and hold the hospital accountable.
Maribel Mckinze, the Organizing Director of UFCW Local 135, the largest local union in the Labor Council, echoes her sisters and also points to how building a stronger labor movement will result in a better, more just social order:
Being a part of the labor movement means standing shoulder to shoulder with workers, empowering them to fight for their rights, and creating a stronger and fairer future for all. It's about uniting our voices to create lasting change that uplifts working families and builds a more just society.
Finally, in an interview done by Suhauna Hussain in the Los Angeles Times, labor organizer Jane McAlevey contends that more bottom-up democracy and transparency is necessary to make unions stronger. McAlevey ends the interview by citing two big lessons from her most recent book with Abby Lawlor, Rules to Win By Power and Participation in Union Negotiations:
[First, W]orkers actually can still win really big. I don’t want to settle for less-than-good contracts. Workers have, for 50 years, been taking it in the neck in this country; we see it in the inequality divide. It’s just a function of greed. There is plenty of money. So the first lesson is, workers actually can win much more, but it’s a question of power and strategy.
Secondly, it is about showing — not talking about showing — what new democracy looks like. That’s really important to me. There are plenty of unions that are not exactly good at being ‘small d’ democratic — at involving all the members in negotiations.
I saw this in action during several recent negotiation sessions here in San Diego County and believe it is a new paradigm that should guide the rest of labor into the future. If it does, then we will indeed have “solidarity, forever.”
But to be clear: much work remains to be done.
Next week: Voices of SD Labor Part Two. This series will continue episodically into the coming year and onward.