A cross section of unions from the public sector to the trades met during the Democratic convention Aug. 19 to discuss what it will take to rid the nation of Donald Trump and restore a set of values in which workers can be assured of a decent living and a good retirement.
In the words of Lee Saunders, who kicked off the meeting, “everything we believe in and have worked for is on the line.” The president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees expressed the feeling in the virtual room when he said, “Enough. Enough of a president who has never worked a day in his life.”
The Biden-Harris ticket, Saunders said, will fight for collective bargaining, union-friendly laws, collective power and a fair return for our work. A Democratic administration will provide healthcare instead of corporate bailouts. And it will set us on the road to racial justice.
“It is appalling that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump have left us twisting in the wind over the HEROES Act,” he said. But workers are resourceful: “We’ll beat Trump in a virtual campaign just as if we were meeting in the streets and knocking on doors.”
In a discussion on education and healthcare, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler echoed the pride unionists felt during the convention’s roll call of delegates across the United States and its territories. “I was so proud to see essential workers front and center,” she said. “Educators and school-related professionals preparing to start school. Bus drivers and frontline transportation workers who are trying to keep the public safe in a pandemic. Many of these workers out of a job through no fault of their own.”
What have the president and vice president done to help with personal protective equipment and other safety measures? “Nothing,” Shuler said. “It is time we had fighters in the White House who will put working people first.”
Shuler welcomed four union leaders: AFT President Randi Weingarten, National Education Association President-elect Becky Pringle, National Nurses United President Jean Ross, and Amalgamated Transit Union President John Costa.
Weingarten echoed the warning in first lady Michelle Obama’s keynote address that the state of our democracy could get much worse—and will, if Trump remains in office.
“Our lives do depend on it,” Weingarten said. “Every time one of our nurses has no PPE, every time one of our parents worries about their child’s education, every time the U.S. Postal Service struggles to deliver medication, or Russia gets away with putting a bounty on our soldiers, we can trace it right back to this president. I know we always say, ‘This is the most important election of our life.’ But truly, this one is.”
Pringle ventured to say that this is the most important election not only in our lifetimes but in U.S history. Trump doesn’t even know how to do what is right, she said.
Nurses rely on science and have to have the trust of the public. “Before this president, we did,” Ross said. “Now they’re like, ‘You’re not the boss of me.’ I cannot stress to you enough how much the public’s health means to us. That’s our job. We’re the experts, and we should never be afraid to say so. We’re the canaries in the coal mine—but we have to have a president we can rely on.”
Costa recalled the president’s infamous suggestion to drink disinfectants. “This president has no idea what he’s doing,” he said. “Frankly, it’s embarrassing.”
Trump’s acolytes are following his lead, but the AFT is fighting back. We’re in court standing up against Florida’s forced reopening of in-person schools, Weingarten said. Our AFT affiliate in New York City has made a “terrific” science-based proposal for reopening, using a report card on COVID-19 testing, tracing and isolation so that schools won’t have to open and immediately shut down again.
The labor movement has always been about protecting health and safety, Weingarten said. From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to meatpacking plants to hospitals, unions have found ways to improve working conditions. But right now we’re doing that on shifting ground.
“Trump actually said that to listen to experts is like going into totalitarianism,” Weingarten said. AFT members trust science and expertise, and 80 percent of the public agrees.
A second panel of labor activists discussed the need for clout. That’s why in 2018, a “blue wave” of women ran for and won elected office. One of them was Julie Blaha, a math teacher, AFT member and now a Minnesota state auditor. “Workers’ issues are everywhere,” Blaha said. “You need good labor people at every level, in every type of public office.”
As our workforce enters a period of transition, the panelists agreed, leaders must protect the labor movement. At a minimum, we must eliminate wage theft. We must strengthen working conditions to protect against COVID-19 and other dangers to public health. We need a guarantee of the right to unionize, by statute, at the state and national levels. We must ensure that public funds are used for the public good. We need climate justice and green jobs to “build back better with union labor.” And we need to enshrine the right to a secure retirement.
How? In the words of Stacey Abrams, who was thwarted in her race for governor of Georgia, “we have to win back America.” Joining the labor council meeting, Abrams said workers who remain unheard are denied access to democracy. Her organization, Fair Fight, is working with 67,000 volunteers to turn out the vote.
“Elected officials have to see you, defend you and include you,” Abrams said. “We have to vote all the way down the ballot. That way, we will have won back not just an election but the future.”