It’s no secret that union membership is on the decline. It’s also crystal clear that there is a direct correlative relationship between the decline of unions and the decline of the middle class.
In a Labor Day editorial, the Sacramento Bee raised the vital issue of the future of unions. For that we thank them. But unfortunately, the Bee did what media outlets do far too often today: perpetuate a narrow view of unions and offer prescriptions for labor’s decline that don’t reflect the real-world challenges we face. Yesterday, California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski set the record straight in a new op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s Bee.
Myriad factors have led to the decline of labor unions in the private sector. But no discussion of this decline is complete – or even valid – without noting the incredible difficulties workers encounter when trying to join a union today.
In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated to Congress that “the rights of employees freely to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining should be fully protected.” Problem is, in today's corporate-dominated America, that's not the reality.
According to American Rights at Work, when faced with organizing drives, 25 percent of employers illegally fire at least one pro-union worker; half threaten to close a worksite if the union prevails; and nine out of 10 force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors.
In other words, weak labor laws mean workers don't have much of a chance to join a union anymore. And we can't address the generational gap in union membership unless labor law is strengthened to give young people a path to a union job.
Employer interference and broken labor laws are just part of the equation. Failed trade policies have also played a significant role in the decline of quality union manufacturing jobs. The Bee was quick to accuse Labor of being “anti-trade,” but Pulaski’s response offers both an explanation and a tangible solution:
Unions aren't against trade and don't blame foreign workers for the exodus of manufacturing, as The Bee asserted. We are against unfair trade policy put in place by politicians – both Democratic and Republican – to benefit multinational corporations at the expense of workers.
Weak labor standards in trade agreements give multinational corporations incentive to move manufacturing overseas. As a result, we have a $400 billion trade deficit, oppressive working conditions abroad and fewer middle-class jobs at home. That must change if we're to rebuild the economy from the middle class out.
That’s the sort of change that we are fighting for every day, not just on behalf of our members, but on behalf of ALL workers and the middle class as a whole. CNN contributor Donna Brazile agrees, pointing out that unions do a whole lot more than bargain for decent wages and working conditions for members:
Unions aren't a “thing of the past.” They're a vital part of our social fabric and economic future. Did you know, for example, that unions run the largest career training program outside the military? Union apprenticeship programs generally partner with employers or industries to provide the kind of training that hard-wires excellence into workers and places them in good jobs that can support families. That's worth a lot when unemployment is stubbornly high and personal incomes are falling.
Apprenticeship training programs are just one of the many, many things unions do to life up the middle class as a whole. We also fight for important legislation to help working families who are still struggling in this recovery. This year alone, Labor fought tooth and nail on two issues that have been plaguing California working families for years — the rise in home foreclosures and cuts to medical treatment for injured workers – and despite hostile opposition from corporate interests, we succeeded in passing both bills out of the Legislature. Thanks to these labor-backed reforms, working families (union and non-union) who are struggling to keep their homes or recover from a workplace injury now have the law on their side.
Now, that’s not to say that unions can solve every problem. Each success we achieve is an uphill battle against the corporate special interests and their deep pockets, and we rarely get 100% of what we set out for. As Pulaski explained:
Unions aren't perfect. We're always striving to better adapt to a changing workforce and new economic reality. But in a time of historic economic challenges, unions – whether we represent teachers, electricians or grocery clerks – are a last line of defense. The great American middle class didn't just happen. It was built, brick by brick. It was built by our parents and grandparents and the unions that represented them, which created the 40-hour workweek, paid holidays, health care and retirement benefits, and wages that were once the envy of the world.
But now that middle class is being systematically dismantled. It's being dismantled by Wall Street bankers and their lobbyists. It's being dismantled by CEOs who demand lavish salaries and bonuses for themselves but deny the rights of their workers to negotiate a living wage for a hard day's work. The only thing that stands in their way today is the same thing that stood in their way in our grandparents' generation: working people standing together.
If we're to have a thriving middle class again, unions must be central to the equation.