Anger is everywhere. So many people are angry about so many things that you can almost smell it in the air. New Yorkers and Americans across the country have been angry for a long time, and it is coming to a head. Public anger can cause great change, but it can also do tremendous damage. Lately, too much anger has undeservedly fallen upon the labor movement, and we need to fight back hard.
After the financial crisis hit, American anger was directed squarely at Wall Street and the greedy bankers who drove the country into a deep recession. This anger was almost like a unifying force in which Americans could find a shared experience amid financial difficulties.
Since then, that anger has intensified and expanded to include politicians, large companies and, most disturbing for us, unions, especially public sector unions. Even after the severe budget cuts that our unions have faced over the years, many of our opponents cry fowl when they see unions maintaining good wages and benefits. They ask, “How can they get these perks when the private sector is scrapping for every penny?”
City newspapers like to point to the Top Ten pension double dippers or the fifteen highest paid public employees who milked overtime opportunities. So-called experts say that union benefits are too generous, have run out of control, and are eating up our public revenues. They forget that for every person who abuses the benefit system there are thousands who depend on it to survive — a few overtime hours help feed the family; a pension check helps pay skyrocketing rent after retirement.
We can never forget who got us into this economic mess. It was not the wages or benefits of average working-class New Yorkers and other Americans. It was greedy bankers not content to make millions a year. They drove our economy off a cliff and put our governments’ budgets and pensions on the brink of near collapse. Now we must fight to recover our previous financial stability.
It is not as though our members have never seen hard times before. For several years, government budgets have been slashed, workers have been laid off, and those who still have jobs have been asked to do more work with less. Mayor Bloomberg just announced that city agencies must cut another two to four percent from their bottom line. Local 237 has been able to keep most members working only through constant vigilance and activism to stave off harsh cutbacks.
But such a fight is exactly what unions are for! We protect workers from troubled times when economic markets are ruled more by greed than by respect for the rights of working men and women. A better question is why are union memberships dropping around the country at a time we need them to defend workers more than ever. Now is not a time to shy away from organized labor, but to embrace it.
We should not be forced to apologize for the benefits we fought long and hard to get. We should instead put the blame where it belongs: with those responsible for destroying the economy and the politicians who have done little to create more jobs and better wages. Many Americans have the right to be legitimately upset, but we must remind them where their anger belongs.
That is why I am excited to travel to Washington, D.C., as this issue goes to press, to participate in the “One Nation, Working Together” march, where unions from around the country will join together to make a statement. It’s time for politicians, the public and the press to stop put- ting the burden of this recession on the shoulders of labor.
Hopefully, this massive march will raise awareness across the country as Americans head to the polls in November. We are at a critical moment, when the widespread anger could force many labor advocates from office. In such an environment, our members must understand that not voting is the same as voting for the anti-labor side.
We must take our own anger — our passion — to the polls, and make sure we protect people with union interests at heart. We can’t sit on the sidelines and allow the leaders who support us to be thrown out simply because they are currently serving in office. We can be angry along with most everyone else, but we must show that emotion by storming the polls and not by avoiding them. That is what demonstrates real passion, and if we have passion on our side, we will be hard to defeat.