The Rhode Island labor movement has much to celebrate this Labor Day.
This year, across the Ocean State, our 80,000 members made significant gains at the bargaining table and at the General Assembly. While there are some who would like to portray organized labor as a special interest group, our members know that when we fight for our members, we fight for all working people.
After years of advocacy by the Rhode Island Building Trades and Attorney General Peter Neronha, the General Assembly enacted and Governor Dan McKee signed a groundbreaking new law making wage theft a felony.
For too long, Rhode Island workers, whether they are union members or not, were plagued by unscrupulous employers who would misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying benefits and taxes or worse, they would simply not pay workers their earned wages. Thanks to the leadership of Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, the state has powerful new tools to protect workers’ pay while ensuring the rest of us don’t have to foot the bill on the taxes these bad actors cheated all of us out of.
The Rhode Island AFL-CIO continues to partner with allies in the environmental movement through our Climate Jobs Rhode Island project. This year, we worked together to pass a solar siting law making Rhode Island a national leader in the expansion of solar power, while protecting the state’s forests. We also fought for an important law championed by the Childhood Lead Action Project requiring all remaining water service lines containing lead to be replaced over the next 10 years.
But the labor movement is not just a presence at the State House. Our affiliated local unions continue to organize new workers, most notably in the service sector and the emerging cannabis industry. Every day, union organizers are meeting with unorganized workers, explaining that not only do union members earn more money and have better benefits, but by having a voice on the job, workers can make sure their workplaces are safer and free from discrimination and harassment.
Over the past year, we’ve seen unprecedented action by union members on the picket line as they stand up against employers trying to hoard their profits. Workers at Northeast Transportation Services in Pawtucket won a new contract after a seven-month strike, and UPS workers spent the summer organizing for a potential — but in the end unnecessary — strike, and won advancements in pay and benefits.
Our union siblings in the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America are still on strike, standing up for their right to earn a decent living in a profitable billion-dollar industry.
There is still work to be done. Rhode Island needs to reconsider the path of education reform we set out on in the last decade, and engage in honest reflection on how the drive to privatize public education is failing to deliver on its promises. A decade after major pension changes went into effect for public service workers, it is time to revisit the most draconian of cuts to both active workers and retirees, so our members can retire with dignity. We must continue to raise the minimum wage to keep up with neighboring states, and we should join with Massachusetts and provide free school meals for all students.
And we must make sure the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority has the resources it needs to expand its service across the state while it decarbonizes its fleet of vehicles.
This Labor Day, enjoy the time with family and friends, and over hot dogs and hamburgers, take a moment to remember that workers deserve our daily bread — and roses too.
George Nee is the president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. Patrick Crowley is the secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.