Strong Unions Mean a Strong Work Force

(this article originally appeared in the Riverside Press-Enterprise)

“Collective bargaining … has played a major role in America's economic miracle. Unions represent some of the freest institutions in this land. There are few finer examples of participatory democracy to be found anywhere.”

Those aren't the words of AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka or President Obama. It may come as a surprise, but that's a quote from a 1981 speech given by Ronald Reagan.

To be sure, Reagan's relationship with unions was complicated, and, at times, quite contentious. But there's no question that he understood the value — even necessity — of collective bargaining. He remains the only president in history to have also served as the head of a union, the Screen Actors Guild.


Reagan's view of the value of collective bargaining was shared by many Republicans in the decades following World War II. That's because they understood “America's economic miracle” owed a great deal to the right of workers to bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

From 1950-1980, a period in which nearly a third of all workers were in a union, incomes grew for Americans at all income levels by about 3 percent per year. As a result, the growth of our middle class exploded. Imagine a time when Americans weren't up to their eyeballs in debt.

They could afford houses on the middle class salaries they made at the local factory or grocery store. Communities thrived because workers had more money in their pockets to support local businesses.

Fast forward to 2011. As the percentage of private sector workers in a union has dropped below 7 percent, we're facing more income inequality today than we have since the Great Depression.


Wages for most middle class and working-class Americans have stagnated for a generation, while incomes at the very top have grown to obscene levels. While most of us are still reeling from the ongoing recession, corporations made record profits in 2010. Wall Street executives received more than $20 billion in bonuses last year alone.

In California , we have seen huge disparity in wage growth. According to the California Budget Project, from 1987-2008, 40 percent of income gains went to the wealthiest 1 percent of Californians and more than 70 percent of the gains went to the wealthiest 10 percent. Nationally, about 400 of the wealthiest people in the country now have a combined net worth that is equal to half of all Americans.

This didn't happen by accident. Corporate CEOs have shipped our good jobs overseas to pad their bottom line. They've spent millions on specialized consultants whose only job is to bust unions and stop workers from organizing.


They've bankrolled politicians to give the very wealthy huge tax breaks, with no strings attached. They've championed policies of deregulation that encouraged the Wall Street scams that crashed our economy and led to millions losing their homes and jobs.

CEOs and Wall Street executives have been knowingly tearing down America's middle class for decades, brick by brick.

Now, the same forces behind this income inequality see an opportunity to funnel even more middle class income into the hands of the rich.

The politicians who are controlled by corporate interests have embarked on an aggressive campaign to reduce salaries, benefits and even collective bargaining rights for teachers, firefighters and other public workers.

They say it's about state budgets, but that's just a smokescreen. Prior to the housing bubble bursting and the ensuing economic collapse, most state budgets, including California's, were not in crisis. Corporate interests have used the tanking economy created by Wall Street greed to try to clear the playing field of any opposition to their agenda.

If the corporate plan to weaken the voice of working people succeeds, there will be little to stand in the way of their dominance over politics. And that will lead to more sweetheart deals for CEOs and a weaker grip on the fading middle class for workers.


That's why protecting and expanding workers' ability to join together to bargain for wages and benefits must be central to our nation's strategy to rebuild the middle class.

Ronald Reagan understood that collective bargaining was a valuable tool for American workers. It's a lesson many of his disciples have forgotten or ignored in the pursuit of an America dominated by Big Business. I just wonder what The Gipper might say about the Wisconsin-style assaults on collective bargaining if he were with us today.