We celebrate this Labor Day at a time of great challenges for workers on the SouthCoast and around the country. Decisions are being made now that will affect our community for generations to come.
There are both positive and negative developments today: among the negative is that the New Bedford Fire and Police haven’t been able reach agreements on successor contracts with the city. And both Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech and the Massachusetts Nurses Association at St. Luke’s Hospital have been struggling to secure first contracts.
There are positive developments: The Massachusetts minimum wage increased to $13.50 per hour on Jan. 1, 2021, and it will rise to $14.25 per hour on Jan. 1, 2022. The labor movement locally and statewide played a major role in securing these wage increases. It took three years, but the AFSCME paraprofessionals succeeded in securing a fair contract. And it took a strike, but our steelworkers were victorious in their actions against ATI.
The new wind farm, with the historical project labor agreement in New Bedford, promises good jobs. The new rail line will bring an economic lifeline to the area, but at what costs? It’ll certainly increase rents and property taxes.
We need smart gentrification, where we build for the future, but without pricing out the people who build that future. We need much more affordable housing in all of SouthCoast, Cape Cod, and the Islands.
We need good jobs with living wages and vital benefits such as health, eye and dental insurance, and retirement security. We need a common-sense economy that balances wealth and wages, balances opportunities, and balances power.
We need to stay vigilant and oppose policies that hurt working people. And we need to stand together and show the kind of solidarity that we saw at the steelworkers strike.
There’s only so much we can do locally. There are federal laws that affect whether workers will have a fair shot at joining a union, and whether they have a level playing field when they organize and when they bargain with employers.
The PRO Act, passed by the U.S. House in March and now awaiting Senate approval, is the most important piece of federal legislation to advance worker rights in decades. It streamlines access to justice for workers who suffer retaliation for exercising their rights. It protects the right to stand in solidarity with other workers; it would end so-called “right to work” anti-union laws in states that have them. This is important to us because we compete with those states for jobs.
Yes, many of our elected leaders already support the PRO Act, but we can educate the public through the media and public demonstrations.
While we are prepared to fight, we must acknowledge that we lost one of our greatest champions when AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka passed a few weeks ago. We were counting on him to lead the fight on the PRO Act and we knew he was up to that fight, but I know deep in my heart that he is now with Mother Jones and President Sweeney cheering us all on.
Here was a man who played a key role in stopping the privatization of Social Security and made sure there were labor protections in then-President Trump’s revision of NAFTA. He fought for our rights at the highest level. But he understood the needs of workers at the grassroots. He organized union members to help our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico, after that devastating earthquake. And he was well known for his work to ensure the health and safety of workers.
Because of Trumka, it wasn’t a labor movement of 13 million workers. It was a labor movement of one worker, and one, and one — 13 million times, because he saw workers as individuals worthy of respect, dignity and the ability to care for our families.
We lost these leaders, but our new President, Liz Shuler — the first woman to hold that position — is more than up to the task. She hits it right on the head when she says: “Nothing is more transformative or powerful than a good, sustainable job.”
But when we lose our great leaders, then we too must lead. We’re a movement of leaders and we know the way. As Trumka said, “One day longer; one day stronger.”
Let’s fight as they would have. And let’s make the passage of the PRO Act their legacy.
We know it won’t be easy. We have some of the greatest challenges in front of us, both here and across the country, but I’m confident that labor is prepared to meet those challenges.
(Lisa Lemieux is president of the Greater Southeastern Massachusetts Labor Council.)
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