My Turn: There’s no power like the power of the people

For the Monitor
Published: 9/22/2019 7:00:17 AM

I was working at a day care center in 1974 when I heard about plans to build a nuclear power plant on New Hampshire’s seacoast. Citizens had already stopped Aristotle Onassis from building an oil refinery on New Hampshire’s Great Bay, and the idea of a huge plant that produced radioactive waste to boil water seemed ridiculous to me.

I learned more about nuclear power and radioactivity – specifically Strontium 90 (which by imitating calcium can be taken up into children’s bones and lead to cancer) – and decided it was not a technology that our communities could depend on for energy.

I began to work with other concerned citizens in the Seacoast to raise issues about the safety and economics of nuclear power and stop the construction. While New Hampshire’s tradition of home rule had helped lead to the abandonment of the oil refinery, the votes of citizens in Seabrook did not have the same results and one of two proposed reactors was finally built. But Seabrook was the last nuclear plant built in our country. Citizen groups sprouted around the world to push back on this technology.

There’s no question that change happens when people come together. My own working life started at age 11, with a paper route. Since then, I’ve worked in retail, as a short-order cook, a secretary and in countless other service jobs – sometimes working multiple jobs at the same time. At the age of 30, I started organizing workers and assisting legislative and political campaigns to advance worker rights. I was driven in all of my work by a deceptively simple premise: workers need more than just good jobs. We need safe and just communities.

So how do we get there? What connects the struggle for worker protections with the struggle for neighborhoods that are safe from chemical contamination?

There’s a common ground that unites these issues. Nuclear plants may be dangerous, but they’re mostly built and staffed by unionized workers. Energy producing plants provide a steady, livable source of income for thousands of families. Yet the problem is that workers are forced to make impossible choices just to survive. We as a society need to stop accepting the unacceptable and demand more. We need a new social contract.

For example, in order to save money to send our kids to college and avoid astronomical debt, people are forced to work excessive hours and forgo healthy parenting. Is there something unjust happening in your workplace? Well, better not try to change anything – many who attempt to unionize face retaliation and lose the job they rely on.

Workers in our current energy industries care about the future of our planet. They’re also acutely aware of the looming threat of losing their jobs. How can we create a society where our shared values of justice and equity are centered on the needs of everyone? Re-imagining the future isn’t some lofty concept – it’s something we need to do now.

We need to start instituting real changes in our labor system that will address the transitions workers will be forced to survive due to our unfolding climate crisis. Decent employment and support through massive transitions, including job retraining programs and access to education, need to be guaranteed. As new energy sources are developed, we need a clear way to move workers from jobs in the old energy fields to jobs in the new energy fields. Those jobs should pay good wages and allow for collective bargaining.

This kind of basic planning requires forethought and a deep reckoning with the way our democracy currently works – at both a national and local level.

Should people die because they can’t afford life-saving medical treatment or medicine? We can all agree the answer is simple: No. With a new social contact and a new set of expectations, we can demand government-funded health care – such as Medicare for All or another system that removes greedy insurance companies from the equation, covering every person, not just some, through equitable public financing. For many, the fear of losing health care is a major reason for staying in a job that might not fit their needs or work for their families.

To me, it’s clear that a central tenet of a new social contract is that our government needs to figure out how to partner with communities, instead of businesses and corporations. For too long, we’ve all heard our political leaders and elected officials talk about the public/private partnerships. But what we really need is something different: public/community partnerships. Our communities know what they need. CEOs and corporations motivated by their bottom lines shouldn’t be able to make or influences policy decisions that affect our lives. Solutions come from the people, who have lived experiences and ideas around what makes their communities thrive.

What if establishing livable wages was a hallmark of development? What if industry was encouraged to move toward cooperative ownership, which deepens ties to communities and discourages economic flight? What if comprehensive immigration reform was integrated into our nation’s overall economic plan? What if we all had health care that kept us healthy without devastating our life savings?

It’s time for a new social contract. Let’s make big plans, have big dreams and demand necessary change. If our communities can do it, our leaders can, too.

(Jan Schaffer of Warner is co-chair of the Rights & Democracy Institute.)


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