Op-Ed in Burlington Free Press, August 26, 2003

By James Haslam

The main reason people need unions is to have a voice about their working conditions. As the saying suggests, “united we bargain, divided we beg.”

Organizing a union is the only way for workers to wrench fairness from the corporate system. As Labor Day approaches, more and more workers are realizing the value of union membership. In Vermont, from the nurses at Fletcher Allen, to UVM’s faculty, to the co-op workers at City Market and Hunger Mountain, thousands of workers are organizing unions.

The Fletcher Allen RNs recently demonstrated how forming a union works, and how union members can make real changes at work. After several unsuccessful attempts where management spent millions on anti-union campaigns, last Oct. 4, the RNs voted two to one to unionize.

Since poor working conditions and short staffing in health care can lead to people dying, AFT Local 5221 could then discuss and take initiative on things they wanted changed. So they negotiated a contract that, among other things, insisted upon safe “nurse-to-patient staffing ratios” – contract language that can save patients’ lives. They also helped lead a statewide Patient Safety Act, which calls for the same for all our state’s hospitals. The lesson is that, being organized, they were able to accomplish things that they would not be able to do as individuals.

This is also an example of unions creating a more just society. When only the employer class organizes, into chambers of commerce, business and industry associations, and PACs, corporate interests control public policy. But when workers organize, they can change public policy so it serves working class families, not just the rich.

When you see the bumper sticker, “The Labor Movement: The Folks That Brought You the Weekend,” remember that it was union activists who fought to win Social Security, paid sick leave, vacations, and holidays, work place health and safety laws, public education, the eight-hour day, the 40-hour week, protection from discrimination and more. It has always been a fight to push forward social reforms, but only in struggle is victory possible.

Layoffs result when corporate executives put profit above public good. Workers at IBM are now organizing a union, Alliance@IBM with the Communication Workers of America (CWA). They have given their lives to IBM yet now they’re being dumped, and rich executives are dictating their lay-off conditions. Verizon too wants to move jobs, eliminate and contract out work. But in contrast to IBM, Verizon employees (CWA members and those in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) are currently negotiating to keep their jobs. The fact that these workers have a union contract and can actively protect their livelihood, instead of being at the mercy of management’s whims, is important for Vermont.

Since workers are consumers, their jobs are vital to all local commerce. With free trade policies and corporate globalization leading to the loss of good jobs, the 500-plus Verizon jobs represent some of the last good jobs in Vermont. Workers’ collective interests often extend to greater community interests.

Labor Day is the time to honor the contribution workers have made in society. It’s a time to celebrate our struggles and victories to improve our lives and our communities.

On Saturday Aug. 30, unionized nurses, Verizon workers, and hundreds of other workers with their families will gather for the 3rd Annual Labor Parade and Picnic in Burlington. The parade starts at 11 a.m. at H.O. Wheeler School and ends at Roosevelt Park, where there will be music, speakers, and free food (prepared with volunteer union labor). It’s time to celebrate Vermont’s exciting labor movement, and help put the “move” in the movement.

James Haslam is director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, a nonprofit workers’ rights organization based in Montpelier.