by Russ Weiss-Irwin
I just wanted to share a hopeful little story from my hopeful little SEIU local, tucked away in Central NJ. I’m a food service worker at Princeton University, and together with 425 or so other blue collar Princeton workers, I’m part of SEIU Local 175. I’m pretty new on the job; just moved to the area from NYC in August, only started working in my current position in November, while many of my coworkers have been here for years or even decades. However, I’m a socialist, a big-time fan of Bernie, and I’ve never been one to be shy about my politics, so a lot of people on the job have heard me talk about him. Nevertheless, I’ve been a little nervous to try to push my local to endorse him, because I’m so new and don’t know how everything works yet.
Last weekend, however, I went to the Labor Notes conference in Chicago and attended the Labor for Bernie session and heard a report from an IBEW member, Carl Shaffer, who talked about how one of the most politically important endorsements Bernie has gotten from a union so far was from the IBEW local in Kansas City, MO, because it was decisive in helping prevent a national IBEW endorsement of Clinton, which in turn helped block a national AFL-CIO endorsement. And apparently the push for the KC endorsement was led, improbably, by a 27-year-old woman apprentice. The message that even a very junior person in the union can make a difference hit home. So I thought to myself, “If she can do it, I should at least try!”
Then, just a couple days after I got back to work, I was taking my break with some coworkers and we were talking about various things, and the topic turned to retirement. One of my coworkers, who grew up in Haiti, was asking how the Social Security system works. We began to explain it, and I started to say how unfair it is that millionaires are all taxed as if they make only $118,000 for the purposes of SS, while everyone else is taxed for every dollar we earn. Before I even finished, another coworker, a middle-aged white woman, said “That’s Bernie’s whole thing, right? Get rid of the SS tax cap?” And she started to talk about how much she supports Bernie. The Haitian coworker who started the conversation concurred, and then we went around the table, as each of my coworkers in turn– white and Black, immigrant and US born, Millennial and middle-aged, woman and man– expressed why we are supporting Bernie (and how much we don’t like Trump). It was like one of Bernie’s ads. I thought, “Here’s my chance!” I said, “Well, since we all feel this way, do you think we should try to get our union to endorse him?” People all agreed it was a good idea, and several said it hadn’t occurred to them before that our union was a space in which we could push for a politician who we support.
Only half an hour later, our local union president came into our cafeteria to get his own lunch (he works upstairs in the same building where we do), and my coworker urged me to talk to him about the endorsement idea. He told me that, with the NJ primary coming up in June, he was actually just getting ready to start the endorsement process– he had to discuss things with the International, then with the state leadership, and then poll the local membership to make a decision. Well, I know what that means: we need to get all the Bernie supporters in our local organized so that the results of that poll are overwhelmingly pro-Bernie and then convince the local leadership that the membership’s opinion should count more than the International’s. This will be hard, but not impossible! I know that SEIU members at Dartmouth and Columbia Universities have already bucked the International and endorsed Bernie, and the giant public workers local in New Hampshire as well.
So, SEIU sisters and brothers, here in Local 175, we’ve got our work cut out for us, but there’s a glimmer of hope. I wanted to share that story with all of you, hoping that inspires you the way the IBEW sister’s story inspired me, and also to ask for your advice and support. And can anyone put us in contact with the leaders of the locals in New Hampshire and New York that have already endorsed Bernie? Thank you in advance!
Solidarity from the heart of New Jersey,
Local 175, Princeton University