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“Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”
President Ronald Reagan,1980
“United we bargain. Divided we beg!”
Service Employees International Union slogan
We are all better off because of unions. Even if you have never been represented by one, unions have made your life better. Unions set the standards for good family supporting jobs. Most people don’t expect to get rich but they do expect to be treated fairly, make enough to live on, and have a little financial security. Unions made these reasonable expectations possible.
In the past unions allowed many workers to achieve a decent middle class lifestyle. Workers who were fortunate to have a union job, or to work for a major employer, enjoyed improved financial well being. The “American Dream” never reached all workers but, for the first time in human history, many ordinary workers had a little prosperity.
Other commonly expected employment benefits are the result of unions setting the standard. Health insurance, sick leave, vacations, holidays, retirement plans, and even coffee breaks are examples. These are now common for union and non-union employees.
Weekends are another example of how unions helped everyone. The standard 40 hour work week, or 8 hour day, didn’t happen because employers cared about their employees. The union lead struggle for reasonable hours of work took many years of hard work and sacrifice. Some people even died in the effort. Before the Labor Standards Act of 1935, people worked to 60-80 hours a week. In the late 1800’s, everyone, including children, were expected to work 10 or 12 hour days six days a week. Today 40 hours is the standard work week with many workers receiving overtime for extra hours worked. Employers had to be forced, through laws and union contracts, to allow workers time for their families or some social life.
My first experience with labor unions was when I was 19. While attending college I worked part time at a grocery store. The employees were represented by the Retail Clerks union. After leaving that job I got a check for $85 from the union. This back pay check was because the store owner had been manipulating the pay records in violation of the union contract and state law. I hadn’t been paid properly for night work and working over 30 hours in some weeks. Being a student, 85 bucks was very welcome money. This was my first experience with the need for a union contract and the greed of many business owners.
During my working life, the only good jobs I have had were union represented. I have worked in many different jobs in both the private and public sector. Five times I have been represented by a union. Now I am retired and have a modest but stable income. Unions helped create the financial security I now enjoy. This is why I am an advocate for unions.
Unions serve a number of useful purposes for working people. Unions give workers a voice in the workplace. They provide protection from arbitrary treatment by an employer with workplace rules (called a contract) and grievance procedures. They negotiate better pay and benefits. Negotiating contracts is a common business practice. So why is negotiating with your employees such a problem?
Unions also advocate for more fairness in our economy for all workers. Unions have advocated for minimum wages, equal pay for women, workplace safety, and fair treatment of older workers. Today they are strong advocates for equal employment opportunity and national healthcare.
Unions provide a voice for all working people in the political arena. Through lobbying and political activism unions help promote the common good. There are many “special interests” trying to get their agenda enacted and protect their piece of the pie. Often this is contrary to the public good or working people’s best interests. Unions advocate for all working people in these political debates.
Unions help to keep you informed. Unions monitor and analyze legislation to protect your interests. They do policy research and operate “think tanks” to provide data on important issues and policy alternatives. They provide information on elected representatives’ voting records in areas of interest to union members and working people. At election time unions make recommendations (called endorsements) on which candidates appear to be the best choice.
But union membership is declining, especially in Wisconsin. Nationally unions reached a peak of 35% of the workforce in the 1960s.Today only about 10% of workers are unionized. In Wisconsin the decline far exceeds national trends. Analysis by the Center for Wisconsin Strategies (COWS) shows from 2011 to 2016, under Scott Walker, union representation fell from 14.1 to 9 percent – a decline of 5.1 percentage points. Over the same period, national union coverage fell 1 percent.
COWS analysis shows that despite lower unemployment Wisconsin is not doing well economically. Wages are stagnant, job growth lags behind the nation, income inequality is growing, and the middle class is shrinking. According to COWS Walker’s economic policies have not improved the economy but he has “decimated unions in the state.”
What has been the impact for working people? According to the Pew Charitable Trust from 2000 to 2013 the share of families in the middle class in Wisconsin fell by 5.7 percent. This is the largest decline posted by any state in the nation.
Why has this happened? Since Ronald Reagan in 1980 conservatives have waged an aggressive effort to destroy unions. Workers have been divided with “wedge issues.” Right-to-work laws have increased. Trade deals have decimated the manufacturing sector. But, most importantly, many workers have bought into the anti-union propaganda. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker’s attack on public employee unions has been successful because too many union represented workers voted for Republicans. Many union and non-union workers voted against their own best economic interests.
All of us can support the right of workers to form unions and negotiate contracts with their employers. We can all reject the “divide-and-conquer” policies of Republicans like Scott Walker. We can vote for candidates who support unions and help build a fair economy for everyone.