Counterpoint: Unions still vital for worker equity

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

I grew up in the 1950's in Levittown, Penn., in a working-class family, believing in the American Dream. My mom was a nurse, working the 3 to 11 shift at a nursing home and, when I was 9, my dad, a truck driver, was permanently disabled in a terrible accident.

Mom's enormous strength and Dad's social security and Medicare allowed my sisters, brother and me to live decently and to go to college, without being buried by debt.

After I got my first union job and went on my first strike my Dad gave me some good advice. He said, "Anna, whatever you do, stick to the union, it's what makes a difference for working people like us."

And that was the one thing that my dad told me that I listened to … so Dad, you were right, and I'm still sticking to the union.

Unions are a gift. They allow ordinary working-class Americans like me to join my strength with the strength of a truck driver, a hotel porter, a retail worker, a nursing home worker, a carpenter.

The fact is, that each of us by ourselves are just ordinary people, but together, when we unite our strength, together all of the ordinary people in this room can do the most extraordinary thing. We will change the lives of American workers.

When I was growing up, one in three workers was in a union and a union job raised up whole families, whole communities, whole generations. ... And each generation in America had one common legacy. They passed on to their children a better life than their own. We call that legacy the American Dream.

And, when you had a union job it meant you were on the road to the American Dream. But that dream is flickering. Working in America is very different today from when I got my first job. America's greatness was that everyone who worked hard and played by the rules had a chance to own a home, raise a family, send their kid to college and retire with dignity.

But the rules today stink. They are stacked against American workers. The truth is we do work hard. We're driving trucks, and serving food, cleaning hotels, picking apples, building houses, pouring concrete, and stocking shelves.

And American workers do play by the rules. But the rules no longer work. Wages are down, work hours are up. The gap between the rich and the rest of America is staggering and growing.

Health care costs are exploding. Pensions are wiped out. Job security is a thing of the past. Part-time employment is on the rise. ... The result is families now face the impossible challenge of getting their children to school in between their two or three jobs. Choosing between bus fare and breakfast, health care or housing, in between taking care of their mother or their father or their children.

Sisters and brothers, this is not the American Dream. It is an American Nightmare. Today we are here to answer the call, to rekindle the American dream, to once again have work valued and rewarded in our country.

The answer is one, simple word…

Union.

Unions are the antidote for what ails us. They create the best jobs, provide health and safety, ensure affirmative action, fight poverty, and offer pensions, health care, and training.

Unions are an all-in-one program -- the best that America ever had -- and it didn't cost the government a dime. Union power puts bread on our tables, roofs over our heads. It sends our children to college and union power helps us retire with security.

But tragically today, 9 out of every 10 American workers are not in a union. We are growing smaller and our voices weaker. ... And I pledge, if we do our job, those workers will join with us and our voices will grow stronger with hope and opportunity. And there is only one way to do that.

Organize.

We are on the way to rekindle the American dream. I believe we can build an America where again hard work is valued and rewarded.

This is our generation's moment for greatness. It is our calling, our duty and our opportunity. Working men and women everywhere are counting on us.

Let's give them back the American Dream, and let's do it now.

Anna Burger, chair of Change to Win. Burger's comments were made at the Change to Win founding convention in St. Louis on Sept. 27. The new federation is made up of the Service Employees, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, Carpenters and the United Farm Workers.

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