Unions are ‘strike-ready’ to win urgent demands | Opinion

January 31, 2022 5:54 am

Hennepin County social services and clerical workers picket outside the South Service Center on Lake Street in Minneapolis on Jan. 19, 2022 after filing an intent to strike. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

This commentary was submitted by Leah VanDassor, President, St. Paul Federation of Educators; Grace Baltich, President, AFSCME Local 34; Jessica Burton, President, AFSCME 56; Brahim Kone, Secretary-Treasurer, SEIU Local 26; Shaun Laden, ESP Chapter President, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers; Greta Callahan, Teacher Chapter President, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers; Kelly Gibbons, Executive Director, SEIU Local 284; Ali Fuhrman, President, AFSCME Local 2822.

As we enter the third year of this pandemic, Minnesotans have continued to show that we are willing to do almost anything to help our families and neighbors. What we have not yet figured out is how to move our state’s institutions to govern in the public interest instead of as corporate raiders for the donor class. As unions who represent more than 10,000 workers, we view our employers as no exception to this troubling trend in our state.

Despite keeping our state running during the pandemic, the educators, social workers, school lunch staff, nurses, library clerks, janitors at the Star Tribune, workers who assist homeless neighbors, and the people who facilitate medical and economic assistance represented by our unions are fed up with those in power refusing to do what is right for the communities we live and serve in.

That is why our locals have been forced to consider strike actions to move decision makers to listen to their workers and negotiate fair deals that will address the urgent and necessary demands we’ve put forward that meet the requirements of the moment.

The Biden administration issued billions of dollars to local agencies to provide, among other things, hazard pay to workers, resources to address gaps in services provided by our schools, and much more.

Despite being deemed “essential” and called “heroes” by the public and those in power, AFSCME Local 2822 and 34 workers in Hennepin County haven’t seen one dime go to hazard pay. This despite showing up to make sure residents had essential services available during the pandemic. Hennepin County, however, received nearly a half-billion dollars in COVID relief aid.

At a time when billionaires’ wealth is exploding and our state is sitting on a $7.7 billion surplus, it is maddening we are still stuck in a debate where one side insists there is not enough to provide for the common good. Since COVID-19 first came into our lives, we’ve seen CEOs and corporations hoard even more money and have their wealth skyrocket. The stock market has hit record highs, yet we somehow can’t find the money for our schools and hospitals. These same powerful people have used their political clout to influence elected officials to place their profits over people.

As a labor movement, we have faced this challenge before. We know the powerful will not change their ways unless forced to by popular movements, so it is up to each of us using our collective action to ensure that Minnesota lives up to our ideals. If we are to be a state that works for every family — no matter the color of our skin, our ZIP code or how much is in our bank account — we must take action to make it so.

That is why we are organizing together to correct the mistakes our employers are making by refusing to settle fair contracts that address the degradation of Minnesotans’ essential public services, pandemic concerns and the continual slide into poverty wages and diminished working conditions that have characterized the last several decades of public policy choices across our state.

That is why all our unions have considered strike actions. The status quo is not acceptable for any of us, but especially for the Minnesotans we serve every day.

As our unions unite to face the potential fights we have in front of us, we know Minnesota is facing two acute crises: mending the damage being done by COVID and addressing the racial and economic disparities that are holding Minnesota back from being the state we all want it to be. We won’t back down in either fight.

Our unions are fighting to address these issues and win a better future for all our families. If Hennepin County, Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, and other employers truly want to reduce disparities in our communities, they must change their ways and current priorities.

Workers across the nation have been taking action, including this last fall’s “Striketober” labor strikes. Our members have seen these actions and know that when intransigent employers, whether public or private, fail to act, it is incumbent upon us as organized workers to be strike-ready. We must ensure that those at the top understand how serious the situation is, and when necessary, we must use strikes to win what is right.

As it is with so many of labor’s fights, our struggle is not only our own as workers, but for the common good. If our employers continue to give us no option but to strike, we will take that step unified and resolute in the fact that we are fighting for a better future for our students, our patients, our families and our community.

It’s a fight we don’t take lightly, and a fight we don’t plan on losing.

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