This has been a difficult year for organized labor.
Labor unions, especially for public employees, have been besieged. They have been attacked by politicians, vilified for government budget deficits and pressed to return negotiated benfits.
In some places, such as Wisconsin, their right to bargain collectively has been assaulted. Politicians and pundits now routinely call for rollbacks in benefits that have been earned by labor unions.
On the occasion of Labor Day weekend, 2011, we called on Greg Gomez, president of Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 521, Tulare County chapter, to address some of the issues confronting his union and organized labor in general:
Viewpoint: This has been a difficult year for labor unions, especially public employee unions. Have you and your members detected a shift in attitude toward union support by both the public and politicians?
Gomez: No. The attitude hasn’t shifted, it has just gotten louder. Anti-worker politicians, from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, were always anti-worker. The same is true of members of the public who are anti-worker. You may see more letters to the editor siding with the rich, but that doesn’t represent a shift in opinion.
Viewpoint: How are unions responding to that shift in public attitude?
Gomez: While our opponents have loudly been proclaiming that unions and public employees somehow caused Wall Street to crash our economy, we’ve been working to bring attention back on the real problems of the economy. Americans are struggling, nowhere is that clearer than Tulare County. We need jobs and something that we need to learn from all of these years of tax breaks is that giving Manhattan hedge fund managers tax breaks doesn’t create a single job on Main Street USA.
Viewpoint: Many people believe that unions are responsible for some of the budget problems occurring in the public sector, yet unions have also offered concessions and given up benefits and salary. Do you believe these things have not gotten enough attention, and if not, why is that?
Gomez: The budget problems in the public sector have occurred because a minority in California has been able to block our state’s ability to pay for the services it needs. When things are going well, politicians have made promises they haven’t been willing to pay for. The sacrifices made by public servants — and by the public, which has lost access to essential services — haven’t gotten as much attention because the media prefer to listen to politicians rather than look at the true issues.
Viewpoint: The prevailing feeling seems to be that public employees should return negotiated benefits or have their benefits cut. What is your response to that?
Gomez: For years, private companies have slashed their workers’ pay and benefits to reward their executives. We would all be better off if private-sector pay and benefits were brought up, rather than bringing every worker’s pay down.
Viewpoint: The response of some cities in California has been to privatize public services to avoid dealing with public employees. What is your response to that trend?
Gomez: Privatized services, in many cases, end up being the worst services. When it does go bad, who does the public hold accountable?
Viewpoint: In some extreme cases, such as the state of Wisconsin, the right of employees to bargain collectively has been curtailed or eliminated. What do you see as the long-term effects of that?
Gomez: The right to bargain collectively is a basic human right. It was a right recognized by Ronald Reagan and by the Catholic Church. The ability of Americans to exercise that right is what built the American middle class. The loss of collective bargaining, whether by union-busting or by legislation, will hurt equality and in the long run, it will hurt our entire economy. Workers are consumers and consumers are 70 percent of the economy.
Viewpoint: What do unions want people to know about them that perhaps the public isn’t aware of?
Gomez: Every CEO has a contract that provides rights and benefits that go beyond what the law provides. It says for what reason he or she can be fired and it lays out expectations and working conditions. It’s a negotiated agreement. Why should only a CEO have that? Every worker deserves a contract and that’s what a union provides.
Viewpoint: The involvement of labor unions in politics is often criticized. Why is political involvement of employee groups important?
Gomez: The super-wealthy and the corporations all stand up for themselves in politics, buying access to our elected officials. Businesses contribute more than six times as much to politicians as unions. But America isn’t one dollar, one vote. It’s one person, one vote. What unions contribute is people — American citizens getting involved in the process, talking to their neighbors, getting out the vote and holding their representatives accountable to the promises they make. We need more of this in politics, not less!