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COMMENTARY

Strong unions make the economy — and R.I. — work better

Marking Labor Day, Rhode Island AFL-CIO leaders say passing legislation to make wage theft a felony, and addressing water infrastructure to replace lead pipes, are priorities going forward.

Younger workers – in their 20s and 30s – are heading efforts to unionize at companies like Starbucks.Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

With public support for labor unions the highest it’s been in decades, and union organizing on the upswing around the country, there is much to celebrate this Labor Day. It’s incredibly exciting to see younger workers leading the way, experimenting with innovative approaches to worker organizing while linking unionization with broader calls for expanded social justice. This has always been a core principle of the labor movement.

The ongoing response to the Covid-19 pandemic has seen an incredible influx of resources from the federal government to rebuild our economy. The American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the CHIPS Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act are not only helping states like Rhode Island get back on their feet economically, they are all working to transform the economy from the bottom up. These laws pair support for using union labor on rebuilding projects with making the economy more resilient to the ravages of climate change. In our view, the only way to truly decarbonize the economy is to focus on the communities most impacted by the changing climate and ensure the work going into this transformation is done using union labor.

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The Rhode Island AFL-CIO, the largest union coalition in the state with over 250 affiliated unions representing close to 80,000 members, is proud of our efforts to help foster these changes here in the Ocean State. With our partners in the environmental movement, we formed Climate Jobs Rhode Island to help move forward an agenda centering workers and working-class communities in the conversation. Working together, we supported the 2021 Act on Climate, as well as legislation leading to Rhode Island becoming the first state in the nation to reach a 100 percent renewable energy standard. Climate Jobs Rhode Island, and many others, worked to require the state to secure up to a gigawatt of new offshore wind energy, and to pass strong legislation ensuring that key labor standards need to be used when large-scale renewable energy projects are built.

But there is more work to be done. For example, it is vital that legislation is passed in the upcoming General Assembly session making wage theft and worker misclassification a felony. Right now in Rhode Island, too many unscrupulous employers can get away with cheating their workers out of their hard-earned pay because the penalties under the law are inadequate. Last year a study published by the University of Massachusetts Amherst demonstrated employers stole $185.3 million from R.I. workers in 2019 alone. Not only is this harmful to workers, but it also deprives the state of between $25 million and $50 million in lost tax revenue. It’s time to close this loophole.

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We also need to address Rhode Island’s dilapidated water infrastructure. Rhode Island still uses around 35,000 lead service lines in our drinking water system. Providence Water, the state’s largest water supplier, has exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead in water for 14 out of the last 16 years, and many other R.I. communities have high numbers of lead service lines, and high lead poisoning rates. The Childhood Lead Action Project has advocated for the state to apply $146 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act in a 10-year plan to replace all the lead pipes still in use today. This is a reasonable request and one the Rhode Island AFL-CIO fully supports.

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So, as we settle in for the long holiday weekend, it’s right to take some time to enjoy being with friends and family and to celebrate the successes of the labor movement. But it’s also crucial to keep looking forward to what else we can do as workers and as Rhode Islanders to build an economy where workers have a strong voice, and people from all walks of life have safe and healthy communities. When workers unite and build strong unions, our economy, and our state, work better for all of us.

George Nee is the president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and Patrick Crowley is the secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.