JENKINS TWP. — Congressman Matt Cartwright believes unions and the middle class are under attack.
So, he brought a message of solidarity to a public roundtable discussion Saturday in partnership with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) state council.
Cartwright talked about the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act of 2018, a bill he recently sponsored, and a widely publicized Supreme Court decision that’s likely to have a big impact on unions.
That decision in a case called Janus v. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) will affect 17.3 million public employees, according to information handed out Saturday.
The ruling means public employee unions in 22 states, including Pennsylvania, will not be able to collect fees from non-members to cover the costs of collective bargaining.
“We have a rich history in Northeastern Pennsylvania,” said Cartwright, D-Moosic. “John Mitchell got ethnic coal mining groups to talk with one another and strike in solidarity over the coal mining owners.”
He continued: “This is our heritage, that’s why we need to have our public sector and private sector unions practice solidarity because our opponents are trying to divide and conquer us like a hundred years ago.”
“Unions are important whether you are in one or not,” added Peter Ouellette, 63, a Pittston resident who spoke up. “If unions weren’t important, then their enemies wouldn’t be trying so hard to break them up.”
Cartwright drew applause from the crowd when he mentioned that the two stoutest pillars of the American middle class are organized labor and public education.
“These things are always under attack,” Cartwright said. “It shows with the latest Janus decision.”
The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which currently has 37 co-sponsors, including one Republican, guarantees that all public employees have the right to join a union and negotiate for fair working conditions.
According to Cartwright, the bill buttresses current labor rights and creates minimum standards for collective bargaining rights that all states have to meet. It also allows workers the freedom to negotiate fair pay. If states fail to meet these thresholds, the Federal Labor Relations Authority can intervene on behalf of public-sector workers.
“While this won’t reverse the Janus decision, it’s a good step forward,” Cartwright told a crowd at the UFCW Local 1776 building near Pittston.
Another Democrat, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, has introduced the same bill at the Senate level.
Among the pro-union panelists was Richard Mondesire, who recently unionized with Mission Foods in Mountain Top.
“Having a union in the workplace is key,” said Mondesire. “It may get tough but keep fighting the fight.”
Glad she joined
With union membership in decline, some people aren’t as quick to trust unions and sign up.
Panelist Sharon Mitchell was one of them.
“I was hesitant to join the union,” she recalled. “Being a nurse, I realized I needed the union. I’m glad I joined and that it has opened up my eyes.”
Mitchell hopes unions can slowly regain their previous standing.
“I’ve overheard my teenage daughters tell their friends that my mom is in the union, isn’t that cool,” Mitchell said. “Hearing that makes me think that stigma will slowly go away.”
Young people might not understand how unions work and what benefits they could off to rank-and-file employees. To combat that problem, one local union has established a social club that hosts fishing trips and events to forge a relationship with people and help them understand what a union is all about.
“These are folks that add so much more,” Cartwright said of union members. “They take men and women in and train them and guide them. Unions deliver a product of skilled workers who are trained to do a job.”
Cartwright also touched on some larger political issues.
“As long as I’ve been in Congress, I’ve been in the minority,” he said. “I care about America and our labor unions, we need to get the House back.”
Cartwright continued: “Even if we (Democrats) get the House back, it will be hard to change the Janus decision because the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment. It’s going to be a generational movement to repeal it.”
Cartwright told the crowd that no matter how crucial a bill might be, if it’s not supported by the majority, it won’t even come up for a vote.
“To combat this, you (the people) should be voting, get out and work on a campaign,” he advised. “Tell your friends and neighbors what is happening in the country, tell them what labor unions do for the average men and women of America. Do your part. We need you to do that.”
While he wasn’t a panel member, a fired-up Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, agreed with Cartwright.
“The Republicans are trying to obliterate unions,” Pashinski said. “That’s why you need to go out and vote for the right people to send to Harrisburg and Washington to fight for us. Together, we will win.”
In his closing remarks, Cartwright reinforced the importance of collective bargaining.
“They are trying to make ‘unions’ a dirty word,” Cartwright said. “You guys are the ones to help counteract that and tell them the great things unions are doing.”
Reach Dan Stokes at 570-991-6389 or on Twitter @ByDanStokes