A ‘Community Union’ Is In Tompkins County’s Future–Ithaca Journal OpEd

This year, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center (formally the Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition) will join the Midstate Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO (an organization of local unions) in putting on the 25th annual Labor Day Picnic from 11-3 p.m. Sept. 1 in Stewart Park. Everyone is invited.

The partnership of the Workers’ Center and the Labor Council as sponsors of the traditional Labor Day celebration is significant in that it signals a new coalition of forces seeking to organize and benefit working people.

Organized labor has been one of the most significant social movements this country has ever seen. From organizing workers to bargain collectively with employers, to winning the 40-hour work week; from winning health care insurance in the workplace in a society that otherwise limits its availability; to ensuring that workers must be treated with dignity and respect. Can you imagine what this country would be like without the important role that organized labor has played? I shudder to think. But unions and organized labor in our country have come under serious attack in the last 40 years. Not surprisingly along with that, many of the social programs and governmental initiatives working families depend on have been degraded. Just look, to give one example, how the real value of the minimum wage has fallen (if it had just kept up with inflation since the 1970s, it would be a living wage today).

This situation calls for new and creative forms of community organizing to supplement union efforts and help reinvigorate the fight for workplace fairness. The Tompkins County Workers’ Center represents one such effort. We see ourselves as a type of community union. (See Rutgers Professor Janice Fines’ excellent piece, Community Unions and the Revival of the American Labor Movement, at smlr.rutgers.edu/Unions/FineCommunityUnions.pdf, for a deeper understanding of community unions). The Workers’ Center seeks to organize with workers across our community, across workplaces and industries, especially the service and retail sectors that pay the lowest wages and are the least unionized. In this sense, the Workers’ Center is not a labor union but rather a type of community union that works with labor unions and seeks to achieve dignity, rights and a fair deal for all workers especially those at the lowest pay scales.

We believe that all of us have basic rights as workers. We also believe that employers have a responsibility to our community and to their employees, and that includes fair treatment, paying a living wage and respecting the right to organize. Our present economic system, unfortunately, makes it very easy for employers to violate these basic rights and community responsibilities. Our present system also discourages many people at the bottom rungs of our society from knowing and acting on the belief that they are worth more, both in terms of wages and fair treatment.

A while back, a young woman who worked in a local big-box store told us, very matter-of-factly, that she felt she wasn’t worth any more than the minimum wage she was being paid. I told her that a long time ago auto workers were paid a minimum wage that could not support their families either. But then these workers decided to organize into unions as a collective force and that made all the difference in the world. Workers who have unions have a voice at work and at the bargaining table for fair wages and working conditions.

In our vision of a community union, workers and the community develop standards of community responsibility that we expect all employers to adhere to. If these standards are violated, we — workers, unions and the community, together — stand up to let irresponsible employers know this is unacceptable.

Please consider coming to the 25th annual Labor Day Picnic this year and show your support with and for the labor that has made our community what it is. Each family is asked to bring a dish to pass to complement the free meat and veggie burgers, hot dogs, beverages and ice cream. There will be games for the kids and everyone can enjoy listening to the band Thousands of One, plus labor songs performed by local folksingers Colleen Kattau, Tom Sieling and John Simon.

Pete Meyers is a coordinator at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center. More information about the Workers’ Center, and how to become a Member, can be found at www.TCWorkersCenter.org.