This Labor Day is a complex one for Maryland’s workers.
On the one hand, we have much to celebrate. By organizing together at our workplaces and in Annapolis, we made significant gains toward economic and social justice.
We won a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave for workers across the state. We also won important health care measures, including legislation that lowers the cost of prescription drugs and increases access to Medicare and life-saving medication. We even passed the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which will move Maryland off of carbon while funding job training programs and encouraging labor organizing in clean energy fields.
On the other hand, we see increased attacks on labor organizing aimed at separating workers from each other. For example, detractors of the $15 minimum wage bill suggested that workers were divided on increased wages and that only some workers would benefit from a raise.
Of course, if you have an honest conversation with minimum wage workers, as we in the labor movement do every day, you quickly understand that workers’ lives improve with a larger paycheck. Similarly, the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel recently advised that they considered Uber drivers individual contractors, not employees, thus denying drivers the right to organize as a collective.
Of course, no list of working-class divisions would be complete without President Trump’s racist remarks, like those about Baltimore. While Trump pretends to celebrate white workers, he actively denigrates the communities of workers of color.
Make no mistake, those profiting from the status quo have been pitting workers against each other for centuries, and it is a strategy designed to stop us from realizing our collective power. There is a good reason that those on top want to stop workers from building this collective power – because when we organize together, we win.
Take, for example, 1199SEIU’s workers’ historic win on health insurance. Many health care workers were paying too much for their health insurance, a cruel irony for frontline health care workers. Some workers began pooling their money to pay for and share insulin; many workers reported forgoing critical care because they could not afford the deductibles.
We faced a situation in which health care workers were caring for patients every day while themselves being denied care. Through a hard-fought, member-led, collective effort, our workers won an unprecedented health insurance plan.
Together, workers and organizers articulated the widespread problem – inadequate health insurance – and together came up with the solution – union-negotiated health care with lower premiums and no deductibles. Our members took a huge risk by foregoing their existing health insurance and organizing for good care.
In the end, the members won a tailored insurance plan that guaranteed them quality health care. Families went from paying $600 per month for insurance with a $6,500 deductible and limited coverage, to paying $100 per month for insurance with no deductibles and expanded coverage. These members are finally able to get the quality care they deserve.
The health insurance experience taught us that together, we can build new health care structures that put workers and patients, not profits, first. More broadly, it showed us that when workers organize together, we have the power to advocate for ourselves and to win structural change.
If we want to continue making gains and staving off attacks, Maryland workers will have to see beyond the divisive rhetoric of people who profit from a disjointed labor movement. As an executive vice president in the nation’s largest health care workers’ union and the leader of 10,000 caregivers in Maryland and the District of Columbia, I can tell you that we are ready to unite for the fight ahead, and we can see wins on the horizon.
— LISA BROWN
The writer is executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Maryland/D.C. Region.