Union organizers recalled the resolve of forebears like Peter J. McGuire as they steeled themselves for political fights over minimum-wage increases, infrastructure projects, and health benefits.
By Matt Skoufalos | September 5, 2016
Labor Day weekend has often doubled as an opportunity to honor the achievements of the American labor movement as much as to emphasize the connections of those struggles with workers’ present-day challenges.
As labor leaders gathered in Collingswood on Friday to kick off the holiday, there was plenty to contemplate.
The bankrupting of the state Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) has stalled hundreds of infrastructure construction and repair projects during the prime working months of the season, laying off thousands of workers. Many have reached the limits of their unemployment insurance or pension withdrawals; some have been forced into early retirement.
On Thursday, Governor Chris Christie held a press conference in a Pennington supermarket to publicly veto a bill that would have raised the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021, a move that puts him at odds with policies in neighboring New York, the New York Times noted.
Then, Friday evening, he announced an end to the 40-year reciprocal tax agreement among Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which will subject South Jersey commuters to Philadelphia wage taxes and Pennsylvania natives to higher New Jersey tax rates, Philly.com reported. The governor suggested that he would repeal the measure if the state legislature cut benefits for New Jersey’s public employees and teachers—union workers.
For members of the South Jersey labor unions, such circumstances were a rallying cry to continue to recruit political candidates who “stand for the values of working families,” said Bob Schiavinato, President of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council of Southern New Jersey.
“We are all mortal, but together we can realize that of which Samuel Gompers, Mother Jones, Bobby Kennedy, and Peter J. McGuire dreamed,” he said.
On a national scale, Schiavinato said those issues in the 21st century include agreeing upon a common standard for private labor agreements, finding a place for organized labor among the stipulations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fighting rollbacks to social security, funding reform for higher education, and elevating the federal minimum wage to a living standard.
In South Jersey, where more pro-labor candidates have been elected than anywhere else in the country, said New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D, NJ-03), some of those gains are being made incrementally.
“The difference in the economy is going further and further apart,” Sweeney said. “We need to start pushing back, and we need to do it [with] policies that put the power back in the [hands of the] workers.
“They’ve got the money but we’ve got the votes,” Sweeney said. “The problem is we don’t vote. It’s time for us to kick their ass. It’s time for us to kick back.”
Sweeney described Christie’s veto of the $15 minimum wage bill as unsurprising and unjust, made all the more egregious by its setting in a grocery store with $9- and $10-per-hour employees, which he called “the insult of insults.” The state senate president said he expects a public referendum on the minimum-wage hike to pass in 2017, and promised that “the fight for 15” is underway.
“You can’t have affordable housing if you can’t afford it,” Sweeney said. “You can’t raise a family if you can’t afford to raise them. The money people are making on the lower-income scale is going directly back into the economy. That’s how you prime the pump.”
Sweeney had fewer answers on the TTF, however, citing “a responsibility to all of New Jersey” as complicating negotiations over re-authorizing the fund.
A plan to fill its coffers by raising the gasoline tax passed the legislature, but was vetoed by Christie, leading the governor to seek emergency authorization of funds from the general ledger while lawmakers worked to muster support for an override vote, Patch.com reported.
“As a building tradesman, I sympathize,” Sweeney said; “ironworkers build bridges. [But] we’re not anywhere with the TTF.
“The governor’s given me some things to think of,” he said. “If we can come to an agreement on a reasonable number, we’ll do it.”
U.S. Congressman Donald Norcross (D-NJ) tried to put a human face on the impact of the labor shutdown for union families, noting the number of suicides he’d observed in the local trade groups in the past six years, coming off the worst of the recession.
“Unemployment was horrible,” Norcross said. “They’d gone through their savings. They tapped into their annuities. Other pressures got to them; drugs and alcohol. [They saw] no other way out. You never want to do that again.
“In the building trades, all the jobs are part-time,” Norcross said. “They’re only for a short duration. The shedding of responsibility and dignity at the end of our careers is what’s at stake in the coming election.”
Norcross said that without labor representatives “in the room” when lobbyists and legislators are deciding policy changes, the balance of power is firmly in the hands of management.
“We don’t have much of that in Washington,” Norcross said.
“They’re going after prevailing wage, the NLRB, our right to organize. You know what their number one issue is? Our political strength, and what we’ve been able to do.
“We’re literally the last bastion of the working men and women in this country,” he said.
Norcross had less to say about how the impact of strong labor representation in the federal government could help shape policies at the state level without a better working relationship among New Jersey’s executive and legislative branches. He described the dismantling of the TTF as “a slow train coming for, literally, years,” and criticized the “egos” responsible for the failure to re-authorize it.
“Many of the policies we get on, there’s usually a delay,” he said. “This is an immediate impact. The feds got their transportation bill done. I think people are firmly behind it. You need this to happen in New Jersey.”
When the celebration shifted to Arlington Cemetery in Pennsauken, Norcross took the opportunity to revisit the gains won under the leadership of Peter J. McGuire, the father of the modern labor movement, including the eight-hour workday, weekends off, and unemployment insurance.
Outside the cemetery, he cut the ribbon on a wall dedicated to McGuire, constructed by union tradesmen, and funded with supplies donated over four years by the Pennsauken-Merchantville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Schiavinato said the unions are undergoing a campaign to designate the cemetery as a historic landmark, and plan to inscribe milestones of union history on the bricks of the wall.
At McGuire’s gravesite, union leaders laid a wreath and took photographs with winners of college scholarships donated by the organization. Schiavinato urged recipients to remember that the funds donated were hard-earned.
“As you go to college, you lived under a union roof,” he said. “Life is really hard; being in a union family gives you a little bit of an edge to get a leg up. As you go out into these fabulous careers and make a life of your own, don’t forget where these scholarships came from. Don’t turn your back on labor.”
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