It's Time To Care About Unions

Real freedom is about more than making a living.

“As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead,
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art or love or beauty their drudging spirits knew,
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.”

Bread and Roses” became the rallying cry of textile workers on strike in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1912. These words remind us that unions took the lead in fighting not just for better conditions on the job, but for time to live and love, time for working people to care for themselves and their loved ones.

Every coalition in the Family Values @ Work network has strong labor partners. Union interest in work and family issues is neither new nor surprising. Labor unions helped spur the drive to transform our nation into one that truly values families.

The first federal law recognizing the need for time to care is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. Congress acted only after the Supreme Court failed to recognize that pregnancy has something to do with sex. The case before them in 1976 is known as “General Electric v. Gilbert.” Martha Gilbert worked at GE and, like most pregnant workers there, had a boss who said she had to leave work at the end of her sixth month, with no pay during her time away from the job. Gilbert and her union, the International Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (IUE), filed a grievance that ended up in court and went all the way to the highest justices in the land.

Gilbert and the IUE had a simple argument:  pregnancy should be treated the same as other illnesses or injuries that left people temporarily unable to be on the job; failure to do so amounted to sex discrimination. The Supreme Court disagreed.

An article in the Chicago Tribune reminded readers what was at stake here. The reporter described another GE employee, Sherrie O’Steen, a single mother with a 2-year-old who spent six weeks in rural Virginia “without heat, light or refrigeration.” To survive and prosper, women and their families needed fair and equal treatment.

The IUE and its federation, the AFL-CIO, were part of the large coalition that went on to pressure Congress to pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and later the Family and Medical Leave Act. Unions led the coalition that won the first state paid family leave law in California in 2002 and have been active in the five states that followed suit. Similarly, behind the string of paid sick days wins were grocery store workers in UFCW in Seattle, school bus drivers trying to join together with AFSCME in Milwaukee, hospital workers and other SEIU members in Massachusetts, and many others.

Today it’s urgent for all of us to care about what’s happening to unions. Right-wing governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin want to hide all the give-aways they’ve orchestrated for big corporations and the wealthy by branding labor groups as “the have’s” and taking away the freedom to come together in union. Corporate lobbyists are helping conservatives rig the rules precisely because they know that unions are the best way to ensure every American can have a good job with a fair return on our work.

Real freedom is about more than making a living; it’s also about having time to take a loved one to the doctor, attend a parent-teacher conference and retire in dignity. We need unions’ power in numbers to protect things our families need, like Social Security and health benefits, and to rewrite the rules so all families can thrive.

So as we work together to fight for affordable time to care, we must protect our freedom to join in union. Standing together, we can fight for bread and roses, too.