Real Freedom is a Union Job

by Phil Anderson

“Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”
President Ronald Reagan

On Labor Day we should remember the sacrifice of union activists to improve the lives of all of us. We should remember that unions and the labor movement helped built the middle class in America. They brought us the weekend, healthcare, retirement, work place safety, and many other employment standards. Unions have also contributed, along with many other social justice advocates, to making “freedom” more than just a platitude. They give some reality to our over-hyped rhetoric on individual liberty. 

“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Real freedom and real security is a good, family supporting union job!         

My first experience with labor unions was when I was 19. While attending college I worked part time at a grocery store. Henry, the owner, ran a good store but was a hard guy to work for. You could always get a job there because of turnover! The employees were represented by the Retail Clerks union. One day about a year after my last employment there I got a check for $85 from the union. The reason for the check was good old Henry had been manipulating the pay records in violation of the union contract and state law. You were suppose to earn more for night shift (early morning stocking was my job) and more if you worked over 30 hours in a week. Henry had been averaging hours over the pay period to avoid this cost. At that time the minimum wage was $1.35. Being a student, $85 bucks was very welcome money!

During my working life, the only “good” jobs I have had were union represented. I have working in many different jobs and industries and been represented by five union locals. Now I am retired and have a modest, but stable, secure income in large part because I was union represented. I am still a union member and there are many reasons why I remain a member as a retiree.

Most people don’t expect to get rich but they do expect to have a enough to live on, a house to live in, and modest economic security. They expected their children to do better. From the 1950’s to 1970’s workers who were fortunate to have a union job, or to work for a major employer, enjoyed improving financial well being. This was also the time of the highest level of union representation. The “American Dream” never reached all workers but, for the first time in human history, many ordinary workers had a measure of economic security.

Today good, family supporting jobs with benefits and some job security are on the decline. Average workers are being paid less adjusted for inflation. Roughly 50% of people in this country are in poverty or “working poor.” Homelessness is on the rise. Workers in their 20’s are especially insecure with high costs of schooling, student loan debt, poor job prospects, and continuing high housing costs. Secure retirements are disappearing for most people. In a consumer economy when everyone isn’t doing well, everyone is less secure. 

Why has this happened? Since the 1980’s, and Ronald Reagan, there has been an aggressive effort to destroy unions. The effort has been largely successful. Workers have been divided. Right-to-work laws have increased. Trade deals have decimated the manufacturing sector. But also many people workers have bought into the “free market” propaganda. They have failed to defend and support unions. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker’s attack on public employee unions succeeded because too many union represented workers voted for Republicans. Many union and non-union workers voted against their own best economic interests.

Union membership is declining. It is no coincidence that as union membership has declined employers ability to impose longer work hours is coming back. Unions reached a peak of 35% of the workforce in the 1960s.Today less than 10% of workers are unionized.  As a result the average work week has been getting longer. Pressures from employers are undermining the 40 hour week standard. In many workplaces you are not a “team player” if you don’t work extra hours. Smart phones, home computers and the Internet connect people to work during off hours. Employers are reclassifying jobs as “professional” to avoid paying overtime. The pressure to make more, get promoted, or even keep your job creates a 24/7, work-first mentality that pressures people into working longer and harder.

Without unions, workers have no voice in the workplace. They have little protection if they oppose company requirements. This is also true for wages and other benefits. Since 1973 average worker wages, adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant. Workers in right-to-work states earn an average of $5,680 less a year than workers in other states with union protections. Benefits like retirement and health insurance have been dropped by many employers or the costs shifted to workers.

Today even the concept of a “job” is disappearing. More people are “contingent” workers doing temporary jobs. More workers are being called “independent contractors” (that is self-employed) and denied even the legally required protections of unemployment insurance, workers compensation and Social Security coverage.  An estimated 53 million Americans, or one third of the workforce, works in this “gig” economy. The increasing use of computers, the rise of artificial intelligence, and robotics will severely affect jobs. It will impact high wage service and professional jobs as well as manufacturing jobs. 

It is easy to get discouraged and think we are headed for a grim future. That is not my purpose. Rather I try show how understanding the past can help build a better future. History is full of choices – of roads taken and those not taken. History is not predestined or inevitable. Neither is our economic system. We can have more fairness, equality, and freedom in our economy and unions are an essential tool for that purpose. Support unions and vote for leaders who also support unions. An injury to one is an injury to all.