Renowned labor leader Kooper Caraway shared his message about the importance of the labor movement and the PRO Act at last week’s Oceti Sakowin Caucus of South Dakota’s weekly meeting. Caraway currently serves as president of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO and has dedicated years organizing unions and fighting for workers’ rights.
Kooper explained that the labor movement in South Dakota surpasses party lines and can unify people who have diverse political views. In 2016, Spink County voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. One year later, workers at the South Dakota Developmental Center in Redfield, the county’s largest employer, chose to unionize. The very next year, in 2018, the county voted a majority for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton.
How was this possible? It’s simple — unions equal organization.
“Folks like to get downtrodden when they look at voter registration numbers and see that progressive Democratic candidates are outnumbered, but Spink County shows that with a little bit of organization, things can change,” said Caraway.
The labor movement binds people from all backgrounds together because of their collective fight against exploitation in the workforce.
“South Dakotans spend more time at work than the average American worker. South Dakotans are paid less than the average American worker. South Dakotans are injured and die at work, at a rate that is more than twice the national average. Folks are looking for any kind of way to alleviate the dire situation that they’re in,” Caraway stated.
Protecting Indigenous women through unions
The most vulnerable group in the state are indigenous women who work in the hospitality and tourism industries, particularly at hotels and resorts.
“Indigenous women are exploited once for being a worker in a capitalistic economy. They’re exploited for being Indigenous in a white supremacist culture, and they’re exploited, again, for being a woman in a patriarchal society.”
The movement to bring awareness to MMIW cases is needed, but the message of keeping women safe needs to be expanded.
“There’s a lot of talk about Native women when they go missing or when they’re murdered, but not too much discussion about the everyday small subtle harassment and assault that they have to deal with — the comments, the looks, the threatening gestures, the feeling of being unsafe at work,” said Caraway.
Workers who work under a profit-driven system are alienated from their labor and are not given the full profits or benefits of what they’re producing, according to Kooper. One of the remedies for that has been the ability to unionize.
“What unionizing does is takes the dictatorship that is the American workplace and changes it to a democracy. You and your coworkers sit down at a table, negotiate wages, benefits, safety and other issues. You can make sure you’re protected at work.”
The power to unionize can create safer environments and greatly decrease the risk Indigenous women face.
“You could negotiate to have a security guard that walks people to their cars. You don’t have to deal with any harassment and can have someone removed from the hotel or resort for making you feel unsafe in your workplace. Unions can give Indigenous workers that bargaining power.”
PRO Act: the fight against inequality and protecting workers’ rights
House Democrats passed the Pro Act (Protecting the Right to Organize) which would nullify every right-to-work law in the country and eliminate many barriers that prevent workers from exercising their rights to organize and unionize. South Dakota is a right-to-work state, which means that when an employee is hired by a company that has a union, that person has the right to work at the company without having to join its union.
“Working class people can join together and help ourselves in the spirit of our collective nature, so that we don’t have to rely on a hostile state government or a governor who doesn’t care about us. We have the power to organize ourselves and our workplace,” said Caraway.
But there is push back against the PRO Act from Republicans and corporate lobbyists. South Dakota Representative Dusty Johnson voted against the PRO Act, while in Alabama, 6,000 Amazon employees struggled to unionize. They were met with malicious attempts to stop the workers from organizing.
Passage of the PRO Act is also a path to achieving pay equality. Women in the workforce are paid less than men, even when they’re doing the exact same job. Women of color are paid even less. Although South Dakota is a right-to-work state, unions exist in almost every sector of state, which has resulted in pay equality for some women workers.
“The only place ‘where equal pay for equal work’ exists in South Dakota is in the unionized workplaces,” said Caraway.
The PRO Act will not be an instant fix to inequality in the workforce, but it is a good first step. The important part is the organizing in communities and improving work conditions for all people.
With the PRO Act, the labor movement can ease difficulties that Indigenous workers face. For example, many Indigenous workers are brought to the Black Hills, either from the reservation or from border towns near the reservation to work as day laborers, but at the end of the day, are often not paid.
“There is no recourse for them — they can’t go to the police or have been told that the South Dakota Department of Labor is not going to help them. The Pro Act eliminates the barriers so that we can organize together and create a better workplace, community, and a better state for everybody in South Dakota.”
Labor and a just transition to clean energy
Switching gears, Caraway spoke about the United Mine Workers of America’s announcement that they would support President Biden’s plan to move away from coal and fossil fuels in exchange for a robust transition strategy that includes thousands of jobs and funds for jobs in the renewable energy sector for miners displaced by the transition.
“There are no jobs on a dead planet. We have a responsibility to maintain a healthy relationship with the planet. In the labor movement, we do not believe that it was working class people who made the decisions to get us into these damaging environmental policies and create these damaging industries. It was the millionaires and billionaires that got us here, and so the transition should not be done in a way that leaves workers out to dry.”
Caraway explained that a complete transition from fossil fuel and coal industries to clean industries must be a just transition.
“This means workers need to be at the table and need to be a majority at the table when it comes to discussing how the transition is made, so that we can make sure workers are not displaced and there are not children going to sleep hungry.”
Caraway pushes back at the common Republican and fossil fuel industry message that American workers must choose between jobs and a healthy planet.
“We have to transition away from these harmful industries. Our number one responsibility is to the planet. Our number two responsibility is to each other. Through a just transition, we can honor our responsibilities to the planet, to each other, and to the seven generations that are coming after us.”
The South Dakota Democratic Party is committed to improving the lives of South Dakota’s workers and their families through policies that promote full employment, good wages and benefits, and equal treatment in the workforce. The SDDP affirms its commitment to the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, and advocates for the elimination of right-to-work laws,