BY EDGAR ROMNEY
When I was a young man in 1962, I got a job at Mangel Stores, a department store chain headquartered in New York City. On my first day, I was told that Mangel’s was a “union shop” and I would need to join the union. They scheduled a “new member orientation.”
I considered myself a radical, but had no idea what a union was. During the orientation meeting, union organizers began a process of education that changed the course of my life.
They explained that a union was a group of people who act together to secure things that everybody needs: a decent living, food and dignified retirement. Workers, they said, should be able to earn a good living while also being able to take vacations, spend time with family and invest in their communities.
Sounds good, I thought. But how? The centerpiece was a contract negotiated collectively between every worker in the store and management. It stipulated wages, healthcare, paid time off and seniority. Further, if you had any sort of problem on the job—an abusive supervisor, scheduling or safety—the contract gave you a way to resolve it through an established grievance process. The whole contract was legally enforceable.
Over time, I began to see that the examples I was given during my orientation were actual situations that happened on the job. Nothing was theoretical. I saw co-workers unjustly fired—who got their jobs back because the contract said that there must be a reason to terminate an employee.
I volunteered for a workplace union committee. I started participating in union organizing campaigns. My understanding grew with my involvement. The most important thing I learned was that there is power in numbers. I saw that in workplaces where people are united and willing to stand together for what they deserve, they tend to have better contracts, wages, healthcare and safety protections. I saw how the union got workers to join the historic March on Washington, D.C., in 1963 by providing buses and food, so that members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) could join the fight for jobs and freedom. In 1966, I started working as an organizer.
A lot has changed since the 1960s. The service sector— not the manufacturing sector—now dominates our economy. The biggest change is income inequality. In 1965, the ratio of CEO to worker’s pay was 20 to 1. Today, according to the Economic Policy Institute, it’s 271 to 1.
One thing hasn’t changed: The best way for working people to win better lives for themselves is to join a union, sit down with management and negotiate a contract that raises standards on the job.
Unions are an effective tool in battling wage inequality. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers earn $200 more per week than nonunion counterparts. It has been said that a rising tide lifts all boats. By helping to raise wages for all working people, unions are fighting to ensure that all workers have what they need to live and invest in the economy.
In fighting for issues like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, protections for immigrants, antidiscrimination and clean air and water, we are fighting for all families.
New York City is a proud union town—and on Sept. 9, workers will take to Fifth Avenue for the annual Labor Day Parade. I am proud to serve as the 2017 grand marshal and look forward to marching with Workers United and hundreds of other unions. Working men and women are united to do the work to combat income inequality, racism and other injustices. And we are standing together to show this new generation of workers the benefit of what I had the good fortune to experience back in 1962—a union orientation.
Edgar Romney is the secretary-treasurer of Workers’ United, SEIU.