On May 25th, 2020, members of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania were outraged and heart broken, not for the first time, to watch the killing of a black man at the hands of an officer of the law. Once more, we mourn. One more time, we say: Black Lives Matter.
The suffocation death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer brought thousands of protestors onto the streets across our country. Often, rallies have been met by force and cruelty from the police. We witnessed trucks driven into crowds, chemical irritants sprayed onto passers-by, riot guns fired at reporters, and batons wielded at unarmed protesters. President Trump added fuel to the fire by quoting 1960s segregationists threatening shooting. Rather than seeking justice, the White House sent signals to white power activists to open fire.
We are being dragged backwards into injustice and bloodshed. Our country desperately needs a new direction. As trade unionists, we share the responsibility to seek out a different path and move towards change.
Healthcare workers have learned from hard experience that tragedy comes from broken systems. Elderly nursing home residents who suffer from bed sores are victims not only of abrasion and infection but also the chronic short staffing of caregivers. Hospital emergency rooms overwhelmed with opioid overdoses and heart attacks are symptomatic of widespread failure to provide primary health services to people in need. When we stand up for healthcare workers’ rights, safe staffing, and fair funding, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania members are fighting to change not only our own work places but the entire private and public healthcare system that has failed our communities.
From my own experience as a nursing home worker, I know that members of my union will not tolerate neglect or abuse of patients, even in the worst case scenarios when it is a fellow worker who is at fault. We understand and uphold our duty to represent any union member. However, our unity in SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania is built on a shared mission to provide quality care for all. We will not tolerate abuses by any individual, and we insist that healthcare managers uphold the highest professional standards. Anything less represents a disastrous system failure.
We must use this same kind of systematic thinking to understand the death of George Floyd. May 25th is not just a grim case of a police officer killing a black man. This is warning sign among many, many warning signs that systems of state power are failing to bring us the peace and justice we all want for ourselves and their families.
People across our country, and in particular leaders in the communities of color most impacted by racism and violence, are deep in conversation about what a positive program for change could look like. For years, advocates and activists have called us to understand violence and racism and to take practical, political steps to overcome injustice. Now is the time for our union to show how we will be part of the solution.
Creating a blueprint for renewal requires listening, planning, and collaborating. This remains a work in progress. However, based on ideas from key leaders in our union and visionaries in communities of color, here’s what a program for peace and justice could include:
- Creating good jobs by investing in an infrastructure of healthcare and education that improves life in every community;
- Replacing the failed “War on Drugs” with a comprehensive strategy to treat addiction as a public health challenge;
- Shifting resources away from militarized police departments towards communities most impacted by racism and violence;
- Relieving police of the responsibility for dealing with most community conflicts and mental health crises by investing in programs for restorative justice and social care;
- Raising standards for police departments to recruit, employ, and track exemplary officers while excluding those with histories of racism or violence;
- Changing laws and police contract language that allow broad scope for deadly violence or diminish accountability;
- Introducing special prosecutors to handle cases of police violence in order to remove conflicts of interest for district attorneys who are expected to hold the police accountable while also relying on them as partners to prosecute cases; and
- Recognizing workers’ rights to organize for a voice on the job and in their communities.
In the days and weeks to come, we will listen to the proposals of our friends in Pennsylvania’s Legislative Black Caucus and our allies in social movements and community organizations. Our SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania AFRAM Caucus of black union members will guide us with their analysis and plans for action. Our Executive Board, the governing body of elected healthcare workers from communities across Pennsylvania, will debate and vote on our strategy. Our union member leaders and organizers will have the conversations that bring together healthcare workers for action. In this spirit of solidarity, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania will play its part to build a powerful movement for a peaceful, just, and fair society.
Matthew W. Yarnell, President, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania