OP-ED: Workers are the foundation of Pennsylvania

Eric Rosso
PA Spotlight

For the last two years, The York Dispatch has published PA Spotlight’s new year reflections on Pennsylvania’s labor movement and the anti-union organizations that try, and fail, to destroy it.

As historical markers throughout the commonwealth demonstrate, Pennsylvania has a storied history in the labor movement. In fact, it’s been cited as the birthplace of it.

As we enter 2019, it’s worth examining the incredible common good the labor movement achieved in 2018 and the attacks the movement still faces.

At the beginning of 2018, many predicted workers were going to have a bad year with the looming Janus v. AFSCME case set to be decided in the Supreme Court. This decision effectively was an attempt by billionaires, through a network of coordinated front groups doing their bidding, to take power and money away from working families.

In spite of the decision, the labor movement continued to fight for all workers, securing important wins in the workplace, at the ballot box and in communities. Pennsylvania workers were at the forefront of those wins.

Throughout 2018, we’ve seen teachers stand up and fight for better working conditions. Wildcat strikes took off in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky and North Carolina. After years of austerity budgets that cut classrooms to the breaking point, teachers had enough.

It should surprise no one that the same billionaire front groups trying to bust unions in the court system, including Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation, also advocate for policies that take away money and classroom support for public schools. 

More:Teachers go on strike in 2nd-largest U.S. school district

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More:Supreme Court deals big setback to labor unions

In Pennsylvania, we saw brave teachers from Pittsburgh to East Stroudsburg stand up and say enough is enough. Not only did these teachers succeed in winning better classroom conditions, they enjoy massive public support. Two-thirds of the country supports teachers’ right to strike for better funding and stronger contracts. It is hard to find an issue that enjoys such broad support these days.

Workers also contributed greatly to justice-based movements in Pennsylvania. Hotel workers from Philadelphia confronted Marriott executives about sexual harassment leading to concrete wins across the country protecting women hotel workers in multiple hotel chains.

In addition, a coalition of labor and community organizations stood shoulder to shoulder against those looking to divide people based on race. This included workers from more conservative-leaning unions and more progressive unions. It underscores that defending worker rights is a not a partisan endeavor even as billionaire front groups spend without regard to make it seem as such.

In last year’s midterm elections, workers played a prominent role in delivering candidates who promised higher wages, stronger labor protections, and economic justice to office. According to the AFL-CIO, more than 950 union members won elected office in the 2018 election.

This trend started in Pennsylvania with labor largely credited for the victory of Congressman Conor Lamb. The country’s most notorious union-buster, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, was ousted from office because of low-wage workers involved in the Fight For $15 movement.

York County’s own Scott Wagner, who made a political brand for himself by picking fights with Pennsylvania workers, lost his bid to be Pennsylvania’s governor in large part because of the business and labor practices of his trash company Penn Waste.

Scott and Tracy Wagner thank their supporters after losing the PA governor race to incumbent Tom Wolf, Tuesday, November 6, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

These are just some examples of the hard-earned progress won by workers and the labor movement this year. It’s worth noting: They accomplished all this while also facing unprecedented attacks on their foundations.

This year Pennsylvania workers saw not one, not two, but four differently branded efforts from the Koch-funded Commonwealth Foundation attempt to convince them to leave their unions. This includes Americans For Fair Treatment, The Fairness Center, Free to Teach, and My Pay My Say.

Combined, these front groups spent tens of thousands of dollars every week targeting union members with misleading statistics and outright lies about their union. Numerous articles noted their near total failure in convincing anyone of their intentions. Approval for labor unions is at its highest marks in recent history.

As we enter 2019, we are likely to see these continued attacks on Pennsylvania workers from billionaire-funded front groups, but the resilience of labor will continue to prevail. The collective struggle for workers’ rights is not something that anti-union politicians and The Commonwealth Foundation, or their numerous brands, can stop.

It’s part of the foundation of Pennsylvania. Just check the historical markers. Maybe one day 2018’s progress for workers will adorn one.