The first-ever White House Summit on Worker Voice was held this week—“to explore ways to ensure that middle-class Americans are sharing in the benefits of the broad-based economic growth they are helping to create.” Yes, all working people need a voice on the job.
At the summit, 200 workers, organizers, elected leaders and a handful of business representatives gathered at the White House to talk about unions, worker centers, policy ideas and business strategies to ensure that working people’s voices are being heard. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez all spoke passionately about unions and collective bargaining—making it clear that without working people acting through their unions, workers will not get a fair shake. A consistent theme was resonant: Workers need greater power through organization to secure justice from corporations.
Obama opened the discussion by laying out what hardworking Americans deserve (the security, safety and rewards that the labor movement has fought for) and reaffirming workers’ right to “the freedom to decide for yourself without fear or interference if you want to join with others to advocate for yourself in the workplace whether that’s through a union or any other means….” He called on Congress to pass the WAGE Act, recently introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), which would stiffen penalties for business owners who retaliate against workers, as well as strengthen remedies for those workers who have been fired for organizing. The WAGE Act would effectively make organizing a civil right by giving workers access to the federal courts when the right to organize is violated.
The most powerful comments of the summit came from working people who are actively organizing with their co-workers.
Robert Hathorn, a Nissan worker from Mississippi organizing with the UAW, addressed the baseless pay disparity between "permatemps" and regular Nissan employees. Hathorn described how the campaign is uniting autoworkers while wearing a button that reads “Nissan, lead us not into 'Temp Nation.'”
Terrance Wise, a fast-food worker who introduced the president, was homeless while he was working, shared: “We act like a union before we have one,” emphasizing how Fight for $15 has created national solidarity among fast-food and other minimum wage workers.
Ron Blount, a taxi driver and the vice president of the National Taxi Workers Alliance (NTWA), talked about the pay and safety issues that drivers face every day. Blount described the impact of race to the bottom brought on by Uber and Lyft. Despite being classified as independent contractors, taxi drivers are fighting back with protests and strikes, seeking regulatory changes and forming co-ops to put the sharing back in the “sharing economy.”
We also heard from young working people. While there is no millennial magic bullet in technology for organizing, what emerged was young people’s desire to connect to broader social justice movements. References to Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15 and ballooning student debt signify that the next generation is ready to tackle multiple issues.
At the end of the summit’s town hall, one of my favorite moments caught on camera was Allysha Almada, a nurse fired for organizing with the National Nurses United (NNU), handing the president a gift. She says it was a stethoscope with the message “listen to nurses.” Almada may have been fired, but she will never quit speaking up for her colleagues and patients.
Obama concluded the summit around the need for a continued conversation and creative solutions on how to safeguard workers’ rights in a changing economy. It is important to note that many of the new creative models of organizing are a direct response to specific policy failures and weak labor laws. Hence, an occasional meeting of the minds is not enough. There needs to be a sense of urgency moving forward. Obama made a commitment to work for working people through the end of his term, whether it’s holding regional summits, promoting solutions that have traction, drawing attention to organizing drives. We hope to work together with the administration to defend workers who are organizing. Workers do have a voice and collective action is the megaphone. Now we must remind the decision-makers, like Almada did, to listen.