What It Means to be Union

 

September 2012

 

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SIU President Michael Sacco discusses the folks who brought us the weekend

 

When it comes to the general public’s perception of the labor movement, one of the most accurate – and most sobering – descriptions I’ve read said that we’re living in a period of “historical amnesia.” That phrase was used in an opinion piece by a history professor who went on to remind readers about organized labor’s hard-won benefits that lift all workers, not just union members, and about why our nation needs a viable labor movement.

 

Within our own ranks, it’s no secret that we need to do a better job of telling our story to fellow citizens and to the politicians whose decisions affect our livelihoods. In many ways I’m reminded of a long-time lament in the maritime industry: Why don’t more people know about us? But while we readily acknowledge that we have to do more to spread the word about workers’ rights, it doesn’t help when governors unfairly attack collective bargaining, or when employers routinely get away with breaking the law in representation elections, or when blowhards in certain segments of the media and even in Congress try to blame working people for the damage done by Wall Street and corporate CEOs.

 

That’s not to say we never hit the mark in setting the record straight. One of the times we really made an impact was with our “from the people who brought you the weekend” ad campaign. It’s more than a clever saying – it’s an accurate reflection of the fair treatment we fight for every day.

 

There has also been a potential silver lining to state-level attacks on collective bargaining that have taken place in recent years. The public debates that are happening on the heels of those attacks have helped educate people about why collective bargaining exists, how it benefits union and unrepresented workers alike, and how communities with a strong union workforce enjoy greater productivity and higher living standards. In any poll that doesn’t come from Fox News, a solid majority of Americans now say that everyone should have the right to join a union and bargain for a better life.

 

We have to capitalize on those feelings by explaining what it means to be a union member. And this effort isn’t limited to op-eds or TV advertising or marketing campaigns. It starts with each rank-and-file member, and on that note I encourage all Seafarers to take every opportunity to talk to your friends and neighbors about what we stand for. I’m not asking you to buy radio ads, but when the chances present themselves in general conversations, social settings, community activities – wherever – stand up for your union and your movement.

 

We have a lot to be proud of, in the SIU specifically and in the union movement as a whole. We stand for freedom and democracy and the American Dream. We stand for rewarding an honest day’s work with an honest day’s pay. We want our contracted companies to succeed – and we want to ensure that everyone who helps generate that success is rewarded, not just in the executive board room but also on the factory floor. As we’ve shown in our union, we also are willing to sacrifice in order to help our companies through tough times.

 

Brothers and sisters, we have a lot to offer, and our nation as a whole has a lot to gain if we’re successful in spreading the word about what it really means to say, “Union Yes!” We can start right now, by making sure we’re registered to vote on Election Day, by supporting pro-worker candidates, helping get out the vote, and then holding the winners accountable for all the promises they made.

 

It may sound tiresome to say our future is at stake, but if we don’t succeed, that historical amnesia will worsen, and the resulting conditions will undo decades and decades of workers’ rights that literally were secured with blood, sweat and tears. Please keep that in mind with Election Day on the horizon, and don’t be afraid to speak up – politely but firmly – the next time you hear or read attacks on our way of life. Because ultimately, what we stand for is fairness, decency, solidarity and productivity for all working people and their families. Those things are worth defending, at sea and ashore.

 

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