Today, the two million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the fastest growing labor union in the Americas, kicks of its Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Over the next three days, nearly 2,000 member delegates from Local Unions in Canada, the United States, and Puerto Rico will meet to elect leaders, debate on issues such as health care, politics, the Iraq War and immigration and set the agenda for our union for the next four years.
This convention comes not a moment too soon. With income inequality at a record high and tax breaks for both the richest one percent and the largest corporations, Americans are eager for change. Gas prices and home prices are both heading in the wrong direction, and polls show that as many as 81 percent of all Americans believe this country is on the wrong track.
The challenges facing America today are the questions SEIU members will wrestle with in San Juan this week.
Justice for All: Building a Pro-Worker Movement
Before us, we see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get our economy and our society back on track.
Key to seizing this moment and building a new American Dream that rewards hard work; ensures health care for all; provides for a secure retirement; and gives children from working families a chance to live better lives than those of their parents, is reinvigorating the role of the American labor movement.
Today's union members simply cannot expect to maintain and improve our living standards and working conditions if the percentage of union workers in our industries and our society continues to decline. We must renew and intensify our efforts to increase union membership and broaden our scope to prioritize the issues that make a difference in all working people's lives: healthcare, education, housing, transportation, public safety, immigration reform, and retirement security.
To that end SEIU's national leaders have committed ourselves to an ambitious new plan called "Justice for All." The plan is exactly what it sounds like.
Our union has recognized that if our members do well while all other workers are struggling, then we cannot claim victory. Not only does our mission to create a more just and humane world instruct us to look after the interests of all working people, but our pragmatism tells us that our members will face an uphill battle as long as only seven percent of the private workforce is represented by a union.
In order to deliver Justice for All, our union plans to restructure itself, redirect its resources and use its political voice to accomplish significant benefits for all working people, including:
• passing universal health care;
• passing comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path citizenship for hardworking, taxpaying immigrants;
• passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which restores the freedom of workers to have a voice on the job; and
• holding politicians accountable for the promises they make when they are courting our votes.
Fighting to Give Workers a Voice
Fighting for social and economic justice for the most vulnerable sectors of our workforce has always been part of the basic principles of the American labor movement. Raising labor standards is critical to growing and stabilizing the working and middle class.
Six years ago, SEIU launched a monumental organizing drive in support of security officers who often earn poverty-like wages while protecting multi-million dollar buildings. Since then, SEIU has brought more than 15,000 officers across the country into the union, helping them secure the fair wages and benefits they deserve.
Just last month, SEIU Local 32BJ won a first-ever union contract with thirty percent wage hikes and employer-paid health care for 1,500 security officers in Washington, DC. One should not underestimate the impact these victories have on low-income, predominantly African-American communities.
1199 SEIU has organized 60,000 new health care workers in the last seven years. In the last eight months alone, 1199 has added 24,600 newly organized members in 41 union elections. Many of these new members are in the home health care industry -- women and men who for too long got paid minimum wage with no health benefits while taking on the sometimes back-breaking work caring for seniors and disabled patients in their home. 1199's work on their behalf has secured union contracts that have led to wage increases and health benefits for thousands of homecare workers, professionalizing an industry where there is expected enormous growth in the coming years. And with these victories, we continue our fight to raise labor standards for all their low-wage workers.
Widespread change does not happen over night. And even winning on Election Day does not always do the trick. Change happens when working people band together for common causes and hold elected officials accountable for their leadership or lack thereof. It happens when all of us and those we elect to serve on our behalf realize that it is us -- the hard working men and women of America - who ultimately wield the real power to bring about change and justice for all.