March 24, 2015
By Marc Bussanich
New York, NY—The new leader of the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union told audience members convening for the Jewish Labor Committee’s 44th Human Rights Award Dinner that organized labor must be willing to think and act differently to survive and thrive, or die.
Marc Perrone was elected president in December of the 1.3 million-member union, which represents primarily grocery and retail stores’ workers. He was honored by the Jewish Labor Committee along with Julie Kushner, director of the United Automobile Workers’ Region 9A representing casino workers, graduate students and adjuncts, among others, in Eastern New York and New England.
Perrone started out describing the reality too many working folk already know.
“Working families and the middle class continue to pay the costs of a broken economic and political system where rhetoric is easy and solutions are rare. We’ve heard politicians after politicians, mostly from the Right, but even a few on the Left, on how [certain] policies and trade deals will make wages and incomes grow, and poverty and inequality fall,” said Perrone. “Yet for decades, wages are stagnant, poverty grows, men and women work hard for less and economic inequality is the highest it’s ever been. And all through this time, our great union and the wider union family [we belong to] declines under the brutal attacks from the Right and to be very honest, the indifference of the Left. This must end.”
He emphasized that in order to change the current paradigm, organized labor has to become stronger and it must organize.
“To do that, we must be willing to think differently about everything we do. We must be willing to rethink what we do and how we do it because the simple truth is that the lives of millions of families across this nation truly depend on us. As I look forward, I’m thinking about where we must go and what we must become to overcome the challenges we face. The truth is that I see these challenges, as difficult as they are, as an opportunity for us to become better. What does that mean? We must seize every opportunity to grow this union family and movement by aggressively reaching out to women, minorities, immigrants and the LGBT community in order to grow. These workers are our future and we must be their champions,” Perrone said.
He believes that the struggle among immigrants to gain citizenship in the United States offers the best chance for organized labor to grow. He also stressed the need for organize labor to master all of today’s digital tools such as Google-friendly websites and sophisticated content distribution so as to reach a much wider audience and win the public relations battle against the Right.
“I believe the immigration fight is the number one fight that this union has for the foreseeable future and we cannot fail doing that. We also must embrace the fact that technology is changing, so we must embrace new digital tools to reach out to a new generation of workers. If we don’t, we’re never going to reach them. If we do, we’ll organize better, faster and smarter,” Perrone said. “We must be willing to utilize new media tactics and strategies that will help us communicate and convince tens of millions of people what we already know—that when you join a union family you get some positive things that you didn’t expect such as better wages, better benefits, better working conditions and even pensions. For us to get better means we must also be willing to embrace more powerful vocabularies and language to reach new audiences, and also make sure that our message is more effective than the messages produced by our better-funded corporate opponents.”
Despite recent defeats, especially on the heels of Wisconsin passing new right-to-work laws, Perrone is optimistic about the future of organized labor.
“I truly believe that our best and strongest days are ahead of us. I don’t think for a moment that the path will be short or easy, it never is. Why must we change? We have to. For the sake of millions of workers and their families who deserve better, we have to grow stronger, or we will die. We can’t allow that to happen.”
Ms. Kushner has been an organizer for 40 years. She attributes her success in the labor movement to her family.
“I couldn’t have been a union organizer for all these years without an amazing family. My husband is a member of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, and both my daughter and son are union organizers. My whole family is union.”
Kushner noted that you don’t have to be Jewish to be honored by the Jewish Labor Committee, but she is and she poked fun at her atypical Jewish upbringing.
“I grew up in Hamburg, Iowa where we were the only Jewish family. It was a German farming town. There was a lot of anti-Semitism. But they grew to embrace us. At ten years old, we moved to Lincoln, Nebraska because my father thought we should be more exposed to Jewish boys. Well, there were only six Jewish boys in Lincoln.”
She credits her early family experiences for her lifelong activism.
“When I’ve been asked over the years what inspired me to be a union organizer I say it had a lot to do with the way I was raised and the fact that I was raised Jewish in a non-Jewish environment. It really influenced my values about fairness and good treatment of people. When you grow up with those values, you can’t ignore the world around you. I’d been taught that I had to stand up to oppression,” said Kushner.
Before accepting the award from last year’s recipient, Michael Goodwin of the Office & Professional Employees International Union, she reflected on her career.
“I’ve spent my life organizing workers. They’re from all walks of life—whether cab drivers in Stamford, Connecticut, casino workers at Foxwoods, graduate students at NYU. It’s been an amazing fight. But this last week has probably been a high point for me. After 17 years of struggle at NYU we negotiated a contract that is amazing, that will raise the lowest-pay workers from $10 to $15 to $20 an hour (over the duration of contract)! We got them 90 percent covered for health benefits, which is another $900 in their pocket. We were really inspired by the national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That movement made it really possible.”
She concluded her speech by emphasizing the importance of the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. reinstating graduate student employees’ petitions for union recognition at Columbia University and The New School.
“We appealed to the full board and in two weeks they issued a decision demanding a hearing to revisit the Brown University case [a 2004 NLRB decision that prohibited graduate students at private universities from unionizing]. This represents an opportunity for ten of thousands of young workers across the country to bargain collectively," Kushner said.
She, liked Perrone, also is hopeful of organized labor’s prospects.
“I know we’re in the fight for our lives. Maybe it’s not the guns and the bullets that others before us faced, but it’s just as serious and just as deadly. I think these moments where we celebrate our victories are very important because I have every hope and every belief that this movement will not only survive, but we will thrive.”