Cascadia Weekly Op-Ed by Susan Richardson

When we stand together, working people can win

By Susan Richardson

One hundred and twenty years ago, during another time of severe economic depression and social unrest in our country, President Grover Cleveland established Labor Day as a national holiday. It was not so much to honor as it was to appease organized labor. President Cleveland’s decision came days after he ordered federal troops to crush workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago who were striking for better wages and workplace conditions. Fast forward to 2014 and we see our country is still grappling with economic and social unrest as income inequality grows and the rights of workers to stick together for better workplace conditions continues to be challenged.

I have lived in the Bellingham area since 1972 and have worked at Cost Cutter in Blaine for The Markets for 27 years. As a union member I have joined together with other grocery workers all across Puget Sound to protect our wages, benefits, and working conditions. And the community has stood right there with us. Despite efforts here in Washington by the big national grocery chains to cut pay and benefits and weaken our union, we have grown stronger. Not all workers are so fortunate and the cards are sometimes stacked against us.

Too often, workers are harassed, intimidated and sometimes fired for sticking together to bargain for better wages and benefits. We have seen that locally with some of the workers at Walmart who have bravely stood up to this company and spoken out against their attempt to silence workers trying to act together to improve health and safety and improve their lives at work.

While discriminating against workers who want to organize is against the law, too many employers would rather pay fines under the National Labor Relations Act than allow for a process that lets workers choose a union freely and fairly. For many employers, these minimal penalties are not a deterrent, but rather the cost of doing business.

That’s why UFCW 21 supports the Employee Empowerment Act (H.R. 5280), new legislation recently introduced in Congress by Representatives Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.), which would amend the National Labor Relations Act to give victims of labor discrimination the same protections available under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Currently, back pay is the only remedy available to these workers. Passage of this legislation would give victims the right to sue for compensatory and punitive damages in federal court, ensuring employers are held appropriately accountable for illegal retaliation and truly discouraging anti-union activity.

The key to economic, social and political justice is for everyone to have an opportunity to prosper and have the freedom of speech and assembly that our great country was founded on. When those rights are trampled, we all suffer. I have firsthand experience with the struggle and the success we can achieve when we stick together and are willing to stand up against those who would try to take these fundamental freedoms from us.

Narrowing the gap between the rich and poor is essential to rebuilding our economy, but that can’t happen if workers lack the power and protection to bargain for better wages and benefits. For those without a union who want one, they should have the freedom to act on that desire. For those of us already in a union, we should not have to struggle for fundamental protections one contract negotiation at a time. UFCW 21 urges Congress to truly honor workers this Labor Day and pass the Employee Empowerment Act. 

Susan Richardson has worked in a local grocery store for 27 years and is on Executive Board of UFCW 21. UFCW 21 is the state’s largest private sector union with over 43,000 members working in grocery stores, retail, health care and other industry jobs.

Published in Cascadia Weekly Published August 26, 2014