As Americans try to keep their New Year’s resolutions, the country is united in a resolve to make a bold change. At press time, millions of us were gathered in Washington, D.C. for the Presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. I felt unprecedented enthusiasm as I walked across the doorstep of my home to start that trip, knowing that at the same time I have crossed a threshold to a new, hope-filled era of American and world history.
Our country lurches out of 2008 with the hangover of the financial crisis, hungry for a new direction. For eight years, government and corporate regulators turned their heads as greed ran rampant, resulting in foreclosed homes, dwindling pensions and economic turmoil. CEOs got tax breaks on top of raises while their workers faced skyrocketing healthcare and transportation costs. The Bush Administration only ignored the shouts of organized labor during that time. Those days are now over.
President Obama understands both unions and their workers. I voiced early support for Obama, and know many of the people in his new administration, with whom I plan to work closely. There are many challenges ahead, but Obama will work to create new jobs, affordable healthcare and tax cuts for those who really need them. With Obama leading the way, and a Democratic Congress supporting him, the new government will set an agenda to strengthen the labor community and to make the country better for working-class people.
This leadership comes at an important time for organized labor, as the financial crisis has caused dramatic problems for both employers and employees. Unemployment rates continue to rise, and government budgets at every level are strapped for cash. Even in Detroit, a proud union town, the collapse of the U.S. auto industry threatens to put millions of workers on the street. As the economy makes contract negotiations more complicated, strong unions with strong leadership are more important now than ever to protect the rights of workers.
Here at home, with the state and the city hit hard by the collapse of Wall Street, politicians are looking to save money by cutting union jobs and services. While I understand that tough times call for tough measures, we cannot allow the government to lay the entire weight of their financial problems on the backs of the working middle class. Both Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson delivered bleak addresses in the last month calling for dramatic reductions in government spending and new taxes. Bloomberg has also said on several occasions that he may shrink the city’s work force and cut essential services. We will do everything in our power to stop that from happening.
In these difficult times, government should be doing their best to prop up the working class — the foundation of our economy — not knock them down. In the New York Observer, I told the mayor “We are looking for no layoffs from the city and no reduction in services.” On behalf of all our members, I will continue to make my voice heard and fight any measure that would take away jobs. In addition to cutting budgets, Bloomberg and Paterson also pledged to grow the economy and create new opportunities for working-class families, and we will hold them accountable for those promises.
With Obama, we have seen the power of the people to make positive change in government. Elections for citywide office will be held this November, and this union will carry the momentum from the Obama presidency to support the leaders who will back us in our fight for workers.
Just this month, we were part of a labor coalition that called on our leaders to support the new Yankee Stadium. Thanks largely to the coalition’s endorsement, we won government backing for additional financing. The stadium project has already brought thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to union companies in New York, and it will bring many more in the future. The public funding put into the project will be won back several times over in new jobs and training for the workers who built and who will maintain the new stadium. In these times, it is important that we represent the interests of all unions, showing that, together, we are stronger than any of us are alone.
So as the nation prepares to embark on an extraordinary path, I resolve to work even harder on behalf of our members. During my trip to Washington, I watched history being made, and greeted many of the people who will continue to make it.
As our first African American President, Obama is an historic figure, but his presidency is more than just a milestone. His leadership style and ideas make him a ray of hope to many disappointed and anxious American workers. I also share Obama’s vision that, through cooperation and diligence, we can make life better for our members and the membership of all unions. When I came back home, and crossed the doorstep of my house, I knew that America was not just a different place, but a better one.