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On Labor Day: Has labor lost its luster? No: Unions win dignity for workers, improve lives and communities

On Labor Day, I want us to take a minute to appreciate that unions are still around — despite decades of attacks.

And I want us to think about the good that could come to millions of families if more people were able to join unions.

I am a 40-year union member and know what having a strong collective voice with my coworkers has meant for my life. We all know people who are being paid less to do more, often with less and less in the way of benefits or job security. For too many people, especially those without a union, it seems like people have become a disposable line in the budget, something that needs to be squeezed as hard as possible to ensure bigger and bigger returns for those at the top.

I have been a banquet chef at the Holiday Inn for nearly 40 years and am a proud union member of Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. I am proud of what we have won over the years, giving people like me a safety net that too many people I know simply don’t have. I have a predictable schedule. If my hours get cut, I get paid a set amount. I have decent health care and other benefits. I even have a pension.

In a country and state as rich as ours, what we have won should be the norm, not something that seems like it would be unattainable for someone starting out today.

Why is it so many Minnesotans don’t have money to pay their bills? Why are people having to work two or three jobs and still struggling to get by? There are studies that you can read, but it doesn’t take an expert to know that corporate attacks on unions have worked out exactly as planned.

By breaking unions, employers can pay minimum wage, even if that isn’t close to a fair wage for any job. Employers can schedule people for eight hours and send them home after two if it means more money for them — employees’ bills be damned. Employers can offer little to no benefits. And employees have no recourse to demand fair treatment, knowing the employer can fire them if they speak up alone.

As corporate profits and CEO pay go up, why are people expected to live like this? Why have politicians allowed corporations to do this?

I think it is time for change, and that starts with people having the ability to form and join unions to have a real voice on their job. It also means politicians who care more about corporations and CEOs than working people need to understand we are going to vote them out of office.

Unions are an important part of the economy. If we had more union workplaces, more people would be able to have decent wages and the ability to spend, including here in the Duluth economy. This would help not only workers’ families with more stability, but local businesses would benefit from the increased spending. If you are paid so low you are just surviving, you can't just go out and spend money.

Recent news shows that despite a barrage of attacks, unions are more popular than they have been in years. It is easy to understand why. Our system is broken for regular people, and folks are tired of a smaller and smaller group at the top being the only ones getting ahead. We also are tired of politicians who allow this sham to continue.

I’m glad to have my union and wish more people had a union. I hope, on Labor Day, we think about how we can fix this mess before it is too late. Unions can win dignity for working people and can be driving forces in a movement to level the playing field. Let’s make it happen.

Al Healy of Duluth works at Holiday Inn and is a member of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Minnesota State Council.