This Fourth of July, there will parades, picnics, family gatherings and speeches about what it means to be an American and a patriot.
For the men and women who have served in the military, being a patriot means fighting at home to protect the freedoms they defended in conflicts abroad. And for millions of them, that means belonging to a union.
Take Brett McElfresh, a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) Local 94 in Canton, Ohio. McElfresh served four years in the U.S. Army, including a tour in Iraq. He is the first member of his local to join the Helmets to Hardhats program sponsored by by the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD). The program has helped more than 5,000 military vets find new careers as electricians, plumbers, roofers and in other skilled trades.
His experience in the military and in the union are parallel, McElfresh says.
I realized when you join the service, you serve your country. When you come back home and join a union, you go from defending your country to helping build and maintain your country.
I am absolutely proud to be a union member.
McElfresh is not alone. Some 2.1 million union members are veterans, or 14 percent of all union members. An even higher percentage of union retirees are veterans.
One thing most of them agree on is the need for the Employee Free Choice Act. Across the country, veterans are speaking out in favor of the legislation. Carolyn Consoli, a Navy veteran who spoke at an April town hall meeting in Los Angeles attended by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, said it was hard for her and many other returning veterans to find jobs that offered the pay and benefits she needed:
The only jobs I could find were those that led to poverty wages.
One out of five veterans who recently returned from tours of duty remains unemployed. One out of four veterans finding a job since leaving the service earns less than $21,840 a year.
The veterans who testified at the town hall meeting said they were able to join the military with just a signature, without having to ask anyone’s permission. Why, then, shouldn’t they have the same chance to form a union and bargain for a better life?
Kelly Mobley agrees. After 13 years on active duty in the Air Force and 10 years in the Reserves, Mobley began a second career as a field rep for the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE), an AFSCME affiliate. She followed her mother, who retired as an OAPSE official the same year her daughter joined the union.
She says all workers deserve the basic right to choose how to live their lives.
That’s why we left England and why we had the Boston Tea Party. Big Business is oppressing the workers.
Mobley says her passion for working people made the transition from the military to the union easy.
In the military, I was fighting for basic freedoms. In the union, I’m fighting for basic human rights. In the military, I was fighting in the trenches. In the union, I’m in the trenches going up against the big lawyers and school superintendents to protect—and I say this with great respect—the little people. I’m fighting for the cooks, bus drivers, custodians, the people who make the schools work.
On this Independence Day, McElfresh says we need to remember that our freedoms are precious and must be protected. That’s why the Employee Free Choice Act is so important.
We were fighting for freedom of choice [in Iraq], the right to do what you want to do, and not be forced to do something you don’t want. We should be able to make a choice [to join a union] and not be told what to do. Not passing the Employee Free Choice Act would be going against what our forefathers stood for and what the Fourth of July stands for.