UE General President Peter Knowlton was one of four labor leaders who addressed the inaugural conference of the Sanders Institute, “The Gathering,” last weekend. The Sanders Institute brings together organizers, educators and progressive elected officials to promote progressive solutions to economic, environmental, racial and social justice issues.
Knowlton opened the labor panel, “The Labor Movement: Essential to Democracy,” by singing a verse of “Solidarity Forever.” He spoke of how our current society devalues labor, saying we need to remember that “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn,” and reminded participants of “the centrality that the trade union movement should have” in a progressive democracy.
With private-sector union density at an all-time low, Knowlton said, 93 percent of private-sector workers are “going to work in a dictatorship every day,” as workers in non-union workplaces have no freedom of assembly, no freedom of speech, no right to seek redress. “If you work half of your waking life in a dictatorship, how does that not spill over into our broader community?” Knowlton asked.
He gave two concrete examples of bosses’ anti-democratic behavior and how organized workers strengthen democracy.
He told the story of how General Electric crushed the organizing efforts of workers at its Jacintoport facility in Texas, who sought to join UE earlier this decade. GE brought in over 50 managers from across the country who spend two full weeks terrorizing the 300 or so workers on the shop floor, 70 percent of whom had signed UE cards, successfully pressuring enough workers to ensure a “no” vote in the union election.
He also noted that this coming week will be the 10th anniversary of the occupation of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago by members of UE Local 1110. That bold, militant action, he said, not only secured severance pay for the workers but also introduced and popularized the slogan “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” The Republic occupation helped to crystalize broad popular anger against the 2008 bank bailouts and set the stage for Occupy Wall Street and other popular mobilizations against economic inequality.
Knowlton was joined on the panel by Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Good Jobs Nation, and Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. Geevarghese said that the “power of workers is the only thing that stands between our democracy and having a completely corporate-run government.” The greater equality our country saw in the 50s and 60s was made possible because we had a strong and powerful labor movement, he said, which is why the corporate class launched “an all-out attack” for the past forty years.
Geevarghese pointed out that “The first thing that Republican elected officials do when they get into office is to use the power of government to suppress worker rights” — something to which UE members in Iowa can attest, having seen their collective bargaining rights severely curtailed immediately after Republicans got control of their state government in early 2017. Unfortunately, he said, when mainstream Democrats are elected “their goal is not to immediately grow the labor movement — but it should be!”
Dimondstein declared that “It's very important for the labor movement, especially unions that represent public sector workers, to be fighting for the public good.” He explained how his union is campaigning for postal banking and voting by mail, both reforms that would benefit the public as a whole.
The panel was moderated by RoseAnn DeMoro, retired executive director of long-time UE allies National Nurses United, who spoke of the importance of including cultural activities in the labor movement, and invited Knowlton to close the panel by leading the audience in a full rendition of “Solidarity Forever.”
In addition to the labor panel, The Gathering featured discussions about Medicare for All, single-payer healthcare; the climate crisis and the Green New Deal; reforming the criminal justice system; civil rights, immigration and human dignity; urban and housing issues; and a just rebuilding for Puerto Rico. Other speakers included actor/activists John Cusack, Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, journalists Shaun King and Naomi Klein, Professor Cornel West, and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).
In his keynote speech, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders said that the purpose of the gathering was “to break through the silos that exist within the progressive community” by bringing together people working on economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice and other issues. “At the end of the day,” Sanders said, “our vision is a world that works for all of the children of this world, not for a handful of billionaires.”
- Video of the “The Labor Movement: Essential to Democracy"
- Other videos from The Gathering are available on the Sanders Institute Facebook page