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 Remembering the power of unions and collective action this Labor Day

Remembering the power of unions and collective action this Labor Day

This year, we can make Labor Day more than just the ceremonial end to summer. I hope this year it serves as a catalyst for a rising movement of working families in Rochester, across Minnesota and throughout the country. With our country in uncharted waters, let’s look back to the institution that built the middle class and brought opportunity and prosperity to millions of hard-working American families: Labor Unions.

With so much happening in the world, it has never been more clear that working families need unions to be the place where they have a real voice against corporate and political influences that are taking more and more while the rest of us are treading water.

I don’t think I need to tell anyone that things are rapidly changing in Rochester. Most urgently, housing prices are through the roof and families are feeling the pinch of an affordable housing crisis, all while wages for workers are either stagnated or decreasing. The distance between the super-wealthy and the rest of us continues to grow, and with it things like housing, transportation and education disparities are becoming more and more of an issue. Despite growing wealth and power for a small few in Rochester, too many families aren’t keeping up. The city is changing right before our eyes, yet decisions are being made that directly impact thousands of families in Rochester are happening with little community input.

That is why as we take time to celebrate Labor Day, I want to use this holiday to highlight the need for working families across Rochester to come together, both in unions and as community coalitions, to fight back for a future we believe in.

As changes are happening at breakneck speed, one thing remains the same: collective action is the only way that working families will get a seat at the table. In Rochester, and across Minnesota, we are facing increasing corporate power and a rigged political system that has been bought and sold by CEOs and special interests. How do we change this?

We saw a guiding path last year led by unionized Mayo food service workers who are members of our union, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. They showed the results of collective power after the shocking news that Mayo was outsourcing their jobs. Instead of giving in, they banded together and sought community support to make sure these jobs stayed good jobs. The goal was to make sure Mayo, with its huge power and growing profits, was using its influence not just for those at the top, but for workers, the community and patients who help make it such a success. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth the fight.

After a year of struggle, from pickets to marches to letters to the paper, workers recently won a contract that achieved the goals set out at the start of the process: union insurance, a union retirement plan and preserving and advancing wage rates. They also showed that nothing is impossible, even if sometimes it can feel daunting going against a powerhouse like Mayo.

Through the yearlong fight, a group of formerly non-union food service workers joined our Union because they saw the value in collective voice, and some of that group saw raises up to 40 percent and increased stability for their families with this contract. That is what Labor Unions and collective action can achieve.

On Labor Day, Rochester will be one of more than 300 cities where working people are coming together to call out the politicians and corporations who have rigged the system against workers. We will have food and games (of course!), but we also will be having conversations with our neighbors about what it will mean for us to make sure Rochester residents aren’t pushed out because of big-money DMC plans that seem increasingly to cater to those at the top at the expense of hardworking middle- and lower-income families.

At SEIU we like to say “When we Fight, We Win.” We know that any one of us doesn’t stand a chance alone in a fight with Mayo and DMC to address the growing gaps in Rochester between those who are reaping all of the rewards for our collective work and the rest of us who seem to be sliding backwards. But together we have more power than we realize. This Labor Day, let’s come together for a better future. Whether in a union at your workplace or a community group like CURE (Communities United for Rochester’s Empowerment), positive change for working families will only be possible if we stick together.

Jamie Gulley is the President of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. 

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