Jamie Gulley: Time is right to organize ‘unions for all’

Jamie Gulley is president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa.

As we celebrated Labor Day this year, it felt like there was some wind at the backs of working people and our unions. Don’t get me wrong, we still are facing unprecedented challenges and well-funded opposition who would love nothing more than for us to no longer exist, but there is a spark evident everywhere you look that showcases that we may be entering a new phase of the American labor movement.

The union for which I am the elected president, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa, has seen an amazing surge in the last year. We had over 1,500 new members join our union, most of them just in the last half of 2021. There are more organizing campaigns happening as we speak.

It is exciting to see win after win, especially as workers at places like Starbucks and Amazon are taking on big, national fights of their own. Some of the groups joining our union were small shops of just a dozen health care workers. We also welcomed over 400 mental health workers from local hospitals and over 400 Planned Parenthood workers across five states. Each one of these amazing health care workers deserves respect from their employer, and our union plans to fight like hell alongside them to make sure they get it.

Each union win was different, but each also felt linked by the agitation from a system that is so clearly broken. You would think the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed clearly just who is “essential” to keep our state running, would help push the small handful at the top to do better by their frontline workers. But that isn’t the case.

Despite health care workers risking their health and safety throughout the pandemic, too many are still fighting for basic respect, protection and pay. Many workers are finding out what readers of this paper have probably known for a long time: there is power in a union.

It is exhausting to see these billionaires flying to space and seeing local “non-profit” health care leaders having their pay skyrocket, all while too many of our members struggle to pay the rent or mortgage, and to afford the rising costs that have come from corporate greed.

We can’t fool ourselves: unions are in a rough position. With just over 10% of workers in unions (and much less in the private sector), we’ve been beaten back by decades of attacks from those at the top. We know that their playbook is trying to divide us by what we do for a living, where we live or the color of our skin. They want us mad at each other to distract from their greed.

While health care workers who kept our state safe and running during this pandemic are sitting at their kitchen tables trying to make the math work on how to pay their bills, people at the top who care only about profits are taking more and more for themselves.

This is why our work to build a strong union movement is so critical. We’re proud of the growth our local has seen in the last year (not to mention the big gains we’ve made in the last decade, when we doubled our size and expanded into neighboring states), but we need the whole labor movement to grow.

We need to capture the energy that is out there now and make sure this growth results in more people who have a strong union contract. A strong union means higher wages and better benefits, but it also means demanding respect from our employer. It means having a voice and being able to stand up for what is right.

It was exciting to celebrate Labor Day this year with new polls showing the highest approval ratings for unions in decades. But we need to meet this moment.

At SEIU we have been saying we are fighting for Unions For All, and I hope that goal can be closer to a reality in the next year. I hope next Labor Day we’re celebrating continued popularity and growth for not just SEIU, but every union in Minnesota and across the country, and we can begin the real work of taking this country back from the rich and powerful. Together, we will make sure the working people who make this country run are getting the respect and pay they deserve.

– Jamie Gulley is executive director of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa, a union of nearly 50,000 health care and long-term care workers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and home care across the two states. His column appeared in the October 2022 issue of The Union Advocate.

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