Ten years ago I went to Cornell University to study industrial and labor relations because Detroiters needed good jobs. I knew that unions saved lives, specifically the International Fire Fighters Association whose fierce advocacy for the four-man ride saved my father’s life as a Detroit firefighter. In college, I learned more about how unions secure wages, overtime, time off, medical leave, health benefits and the other things we expect from good jobs. If we don’t make good jobs available to every resident of Detroit, we will lack in safety, education and our economy.
Now is the time to get back to organizing. Decades ago the labor movement was at a crossroads. Conventional wisdom said that only highly-skilled workers could be organized. However, inclusive activists created the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), which did not bar African-Americans from membership, nor did it exclude low-skilled line workers. The CIO’s grassroots work resulted in big organizing victories in cutting-edge industries, forming the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union and the United Auto Workers.
Today we look at the auto industry as the heart of the labor movement and think of manufacturing as the base of union power. In 2005, the Change to Win Coalition sought to shift that paradigm by organizing a new population. Focusing primarily on the service industry, where an increasing number of Americans work, Unite Here and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) saw marked success with hotel employees and home health care workers. The need to organize service employees has only grown.
Good Jobs Now is a grassroots effort seeking better working conditions and a $15/hour minimum wage for fast food workers. There are 50,000 fast food workers in the Detroit metro area, more than double the number of people employed in auto manufacturing. Yet many in fast food are paid the Michigan minimum wage of $7.40 an hour, compared to the $19.80 starting wage at Chrysler. The minimum wage equates to roughly $296 a week, which over a year puts a single person just $5,000 above the poverty line – and a family of two barely $1,000 above. These are the neighbors who are only one crisis from falling into poverty. According to the US Census Bureau in 2012, 15.7% or 1,551,688 of Michigan residents are already below the poverty line. Declining manufacturing and union busting have pushed workers down. It’s time to fight back, and Good Jobs Now is one of the groups leading the charge.
I’m supporting the Good Jobs Now campaign. Strong grassroots organizing has always been the best tool to advance working-class issues like public education, neighborhood safety and a fair wage for an honest day’s work.
For more information see goodjobsnow.org, and next week read the second part of this op-ed, which will focus on what we are doing and how you can get involved.