New York, NY – Observe any pro-labor rally or demonstration that’s likely to erupt during what’s already been dubbed #StrikeMas and you will invariably encounter painfully earnest appeals from workers for “Dignity” and “Respect.”
“Dignity” and “Respect” have been mouthed so many times they’ve become bedrock principles. They are akin to Inalienable Rights in the minds of many working-class people desperately trying to find a toehold inside a careening economic system that continues to impoverish most while it steadfastly enriches the very few at the top.
West Virginia coal miners supporting their striking brethren at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama will tell you that money is rolling in hand over fist for the elite. They say, “My god, all we’re asking for is our fair share.”
Hard-pressed nursing-home workers in New York City who suffered through the worst of the Covid pandemic will look you in the eye and say all they really want from the bosses is the ability to make ends meet. And, please, at long last, add some friggin’ respect for the monumental job that they do.
The #TakeItBack campaign is a coalition of some seven different unionized building trades also in New York City that regularly rallies outside the tony doorsteps of mega-developers and their international financiers — most recently, Allianz Partners of America.
The concepts of fairness, dignity and respect make sense. They are fundamental. They are intrinsic — but they are not universal.
The #TakeItBack coalition’s purpose is fighting against the rampant worker exploitation, wage theft and safety violations found in the nonunion sector — and “raising the bar to ensure safety, respect, and dignity for all construction workers.”
Without that fundamental respect and dignity, nonunion construction workers, in particular, die. It makes any kind of job in the construction industry a very deadly way to try and earn a living.
On Black Friday, first-term Congress member Cori Bush (D-Mo.) joined the chorus of worker-friendly activists and progressives urging passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.
The PRO Act contains some real teeth. It is considered to be the most substantive change to American labor law in more than 70 years, levying fines as hefty as $100,000 on any employer who repeatedly tries to squash the right of employees to unionize.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, employers violate workers’ right to a union and collective bargaining in more than 40% of union election campaigns. Amazon was recently caught red-handed violating worker rights in Bessemer, Ala., with help from the U.S. Postal Service, no less.
Labor Board Budget Frozen
The National Labor Relations Board is the agency tasked with safeguarding the rights of American working men and women. But unlike the Pentagon budget which magically rises up to 10s of billions of dollars the brass never even sought, the NLRB budget hasn’t been increased in nearly a decade. The PRO Act would increase the NLRB’s current $275 million annual budget to a still modest $350 million. The PRO Act is lodged within the Build Back Better Act, President Joe Biden’s human infrastructure legislation.
It managed to make it out of the House on Nov. 19, along a strict 220-213 party-line vote. But the Senate — the august body that long ago fell under corporate control — is a different matter. With the 50-50 split between the parties. nominal Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia aren’t on board, so the bill may die. Indeed, it would be something of a Christmas miracle if the PRO Act ever get out of the upper chamber in anything like the version the House passed.
Still, Representative Bush—a registered nurse, pastor and Black Lives Matter activist—rolled her demonstrated militancy into a plea for senators to pass the PRO Act as a matter of fairness to those who work holidays for little pay.
“The Senate should celebrate Black Friday by passing the PRO Act to protect the hardworking folks who are being underpaid and overworked this holiday season. Every worker deserves a union,” the first-term representative tweeted.
Government for Workers, Not Corporations
A more influential Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania similarly sent out a Black Friday tweet. He said American workers, “deserve a government that works for them and not corporations.” Casey, chair of the subcommittee on Children and Families finished his Black Friday tweet saying, “We need to pass the PRO Act to restore fairness to an economy that’s been rigged against workers for too long.”
The concepts of fairness, dignity and respect make sense. They are fundamental. They are intrinsic — but they are not universal. There is a massive hole that lives at the center of the American economy where the normal rules of humanity just don’t apply. So, why waste vital energy insisting that they do?
Profit for the very few at the top is the only thing that matters in the game that we have going on here. If it’s more profitable to ship jobs overseas, suppress wages and lay off workers, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. If it’s more profitable to raise prices, reduce services and build on the cheap. That’s exactly what’s going to happen.
Livable wages, decent housing and a dignified retirement are simply not components of the present economic system. The most profitable thing — history shows — is not to uplift workers but to enslave them. Enslave them with chains, enslave them with mass incarceration, enslave them with debt, enslave them with poor health.
Don’t think so?
Just last year, AFGE Local 3669 President Barbara Galle likened working conditions at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center under the heel of then VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to a slave plantation.
“It’s just like the Confederacy and going back to slavery,” Galle said. “Staff are looking at it as, ‘No wonder we’re not getting proper PPE [Personal Protection Equipment]; no wonder we’re not all getting hazard pay’.”
During the worst of the pandemic hospital administrators kept PPE under lock and key, while some home health aides were forced to fashion their own masks out of paper towels. They were the lucky ones. Other workers were simply sacked when they asked for fundamental — but costly — measures to keep them safe from Covid.
Shawn McArthur is a certified nursing assistant at Cloves Lakes Health Care and Rehabilitation in New York City, where he and his colleagues have been fighting for both back wages and a decent contract.
“Unfortunately, we have to be here and fight for something that we deserve, not just a raise and a contract, but our retro[pay],” he recently told me at a healthcare workers rally held in Times Square. “They haven’t paid us for the year that they owe us — and all that we have to show for it is their asses for us to kiss.”
It’s silly and self-destructive to think that bosses like that will be moved by a sense of fair play or calls for “dignity” and “respect.”
The only time the working class in this country has ever achieved any gains is when we’ve challenged the status quo, shut things down and demanded what we need. And that isn’t going to change now.