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Opinion | These Memory Care Workers Went on Strike to Save Lives

This is the route they chose.

By our count, 85 percent of the eligible workers signed union cards within a week, and they approached management to demand recognition of their union. They gave management 72 hours to respond. We uploaded videos to social media showing workers talking about the union drive, which meant that the campaign was immediately public. After the Rawlin said it would not voluntarily recognize the union, workers delivered notice of their intent to strike.

A strike for recognition is a radical act. In all my years in labor, I had never been involved with one. My introduction to organizing had come more than two decades earlier, when I took a job at an Amazon warehouse in Seattle, hoping to unionize the work force.

Back then, in 1999, the company was poised to become the Walmart of the internet, opening distribution centers across the country. Already, Amazon appeared to be vehemently anti-union. Company policies made it difficult for people to congregate or talk to one another much. When rumors spread that the Seattle warehouse was organizing, management started searching us for fliers and other pro-union materials.

Despite the failure of that drive, my desire to organize remained. I had seen in unions what I had not seen in other kinds of activism: power. The ability to shut down a business seemed like the only check on the unbridled dash for corporate profit. So I took a job at an S.E.I.U. local, 1199NW, for health care workers in Washington, where I learned the fundamentals of organizing: Tell workers it’s their union and then behave that way; workers know the risks; never lie.

As we won union elections at hospitals around the state, I saw that organizing could lead to far more than the right to bargain collectively for wages and benefits. It can be transformative. People decide to go back to school. They finally make appointments to see an eye doctor instead of relying on “readers” from the grocery store. They leave abusive partners. In short, they begin to imagine a better future, one that includes them. I loved witnessing that.

But I also felt we were fighting an uphill battle. Union membership had been declining for decades. The labor board’s 1949 “Joy Silk doctrine,” the fair standard under which many members of the Greatest Generation unionized, held that when workers present union cards and request recognition, employers must recognize the union and begin the bargaining phase unless they have a “good faith doubt” in the union’s claim of a majority, making it unlawful to insist on an election simply to buy time to undermine the campaign. The Joy Silk standard was abandoned around 1970, and rules became more favorable to employers.

The assault on workers’ rights continued under Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush, then Bill Clinton. With the rise of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, I saw workers internalize anti-union sentiment. When most people think of the George W. Bush presidency, they think of the Sept. 11 attacks, or the Iraq war, or Hurricane Katrina. What I remember was the assault on labor. Overtime rights were stripped, federal safety standards were rolled back and many government employees lost important whistle-blower protections.

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