Student Perspective: The Importance of Unions in the 21st Century

There are plenty of Liberal Arts colleges known for their activism, but my school—Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN—is perhaps among the most visible. Most recently, “Mac” received national attention thanks to a sit-in organized by a student group committed to convincing the administration to cut their contract with Wells Fargo, a bank with a history of predatory loaning and responsible for most of the home foreclosures in the Twin Cities.

Amid the noise caused on campus by this cause and many like it, it’s sometimes easy to become desensitized, and to forget the gravity of the structural inequalities these movements strive to improve. Still, as May Day arrived this year in the wake of a factory fire in Bangladesh that took the lives of more than 400 factory workers, I was reminded of how important these human rights struggles have been—and continue to be.

It’s been over a century since the United States saw a tragedy on par with what happened in Bangladesh on April 24. New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire resulted in the deaths of over a hundred factory workers due to unsafe working conditions put in place by managers to keep their employees from taking “unauthorized breaks.” The Fire catalyzed a movement that called for protection of workers’ rights and eventually led to new legislation that mandated safe working conditions. Of particular importance was its instrumental role in the formation of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which led the push for a safe work environment for people employed in sweatshops. So while this event is indubitably among the most horrendous in our country’s history, it resulted in the eventual formation of movements and unions that are now indispensable and continue to play a major role in the protection of people and their families.

Since the events sparked by that fire in the early 20th century, labor unions have remained one of the most important types of organizations in the country. Every year, thousands of families in the U.S. can rely upon their respective unions to lobby on their behalf and guarantee the continued protection of their salaries and benefits.

I’ve experienced these firsthand as the daughter of a union member. For as long as I can remember, the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union has been present in my life, providing my family with numerous benefits, privileges, and educational opportunities. It has always been a source of comfort to know that our future is secure thanks to the work that the Union does every year, especially in the aftermath of a national recession during which many have lost their jobs or suffered significant wage decreases. When I reached college age, the Union’s presence was even more visible to me, as it gave me the opportunity to apply for a scholarship, which has mitigated the financial strain placed on my family due to rising university costs.

Those of us fortunate enough to have these benefits sometimes forget that there are others all over the world for whom things are not so easy. The collapse of the factory in Bangladesh is a sobering reminder of the continued struggles going on across the globe, and the work still left to be done by labor movements and unions.

We have seen in the United States how labor unions can augment standards of work and life. The importance of labor unions today lies in their position as organizations capable of inspiring people in trouble to come together and fight for the benefits they need and deserve, even in the face of a global capitalist marketplace that puts money before people in every case. It is imperative that unions here and across the world are sustained and formed, so that, someday, all workers receive the safety, security, and opportunities that they deserve.