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Americans have always joined together for mutual help and to improve their lives and communities. The barn raising, volunteer fire department, parent teacher association, little league, and many non-profit community organizations are a testament to our civil mindedness. Labor unions are another example of people joining together for the common good.
The freedom of workers to join together in unions and negotiate with employers (called collective bargaining) is a basic fundamental human right. This human right is recognized internationally and is protected by U.S. law. A majority of Americans would like to be represented by a union (although only about 8% are). Americans see the connection between unions and a better life for their families. Most workers think increasing the voice of employees at their workplace would be good for their firm as well as for them. They are right!
Unions were a major reason for an expanding middle class in the past. Unions set the standards for wages, benefits, safety and decent working conditions. The statistics are clear that union represented workers made better wages, had better benefits, better retirement, and safer workplaces. Many non-union employees also benefited from the standards set by unions. Healthcare, the 40 hour week, overtime pay, and similar benefits became common employment practices.
From the 1950’s to 1970’s, when union representation peaked, many people achieved a decent middle class lifestyle. The “American Dream” never reached all workers but many ordinary workers had a measure of economic security. This was possible if you were fortunate to have a union job, a responsible employer, or to work for a major company.
Since the 1980's and Ronald Reagan, there has been an aggressive effort to destroy unions and weaken labor law protections. The effort has been largely successful. Family supporting jobs are on the decline. Average workers are being paid less, adjusted for inflation, than four decades ago. Hours of work have increased as overtime rules have been weakened.
Computer technology has allowed employers to demand work from people when not at the workplace. Temp jobs and independent contracting have increased. Trade deals have decimated the manufacturing sector and computers have made exporting white color jobs easy. People in their 20's are especially insecure with high costs of schooling, student loan debt, high housing costs, and reduced good job prospects. There are now 28 states with right-to-work laws that weaken unions.
Collective bargaining is how working people gain a voice at work and some power to shape their working lives. Collective bargaining allows employees to negotiate a contract with the employer about wages, benefits, and conditions of employment. This was not some nefarious socialist conspiracy to hurt business.
Unions simply do for workers what companies do all the time with suppliers, subcontractors, retailers, shippers and wholesalers. They make “deals” to establish financial and business relationships. Contracts are how business gets done. Why should employees be treated any different? Working people deserve the same freedom as company CEOs. They deserve the freedom to negotiate a fair return for their work.
As union membership, and union power, has declined so has many people's financial security We are now rapidly moving toward an economy in which no one has any security.
It is called the “gig” economy because it only offers temporary work. The use of “temp” agencies and self employed “independent” contractors is not new. What is new is the increase in temporary work. CNN says the “gig” economy now makes up about 34% of the U.S. workforce (ironically about the same percentage as unions at their peak). Also new is the the use of digital technology. Companies now connect workers to work through websites or mobile applications.
The “gig” economy sounds very entrepreneurial. Everyone can be all they can be. They can work as much or as little as they like. But reality is very different. Self employment (which is essence of the “gig” economy) does not work for many people for many reasons. The independent gig is really a way for businesses to avoid their obligations to employees (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, workers compensation). Businesses get lower costs and . workers get the risks and downsides. Workers are manipulated into working long hours for low wages while continually chasing the next “gig” or task.
In the past businesses have often called employees independent contractors to avoid offering benefits, paying payroll taxes, and abiding by labor laws. What makes this different is that gig economy businesses are now arguing that this is better for workers. Companies have discovered they can harness advances in software, loopholes in law, and gullibility of workers to achieve old-fashioned worker exploitation.
What all this really means is one third of the national workforce is not covered by any employment laws and protections. The workers still must pay income and employment taxes. But they are not covered by workers compensation or unemployment insurance. They are on their own for health insurance, retirement, or other benefits. This means no paid vacation, holidays, overtime or weekends. This means no real financial security.
Unfortunately workers have contributed to their own decline in economic security. They have failed to appreciate or support unions. They have bought into the anti-union propaganda. They have voted for conservatives who opposed unions and fair labor laws. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker's attack on public employee and teacher unions is succeeding because too many working people supported his union busting agenda. Even union represented workers undercut their own security by supporting Walker's “divide and conquer” policies.
Americans of all ages, occupations, races, and genders need a fair economy that provides financial security for everyone.
We must all support the right of workers to form unions and negotiate contracts with their employers. We should all vote for candidates who support unions, collective bargaining, and strong labor laws.