Everyone benefits from unions

Phil Anderson

Workers of the Palace Hotel - part of Marriott Hotels - are on strike in October 2018 in San Francisco to fight for higher wages, workplace security and job safety. 

"Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden freedom is lost." President Ronald Reagan.

“United we bargain. Divided we beg,” Service Employees International Union slogan.  

“We all do better when we all do better,” the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.   

Everyone doing better involves collective action and win-win solutions. This is what collective bargaining by unions is all about. It is democracy applied to the workplace. Ronald Reagan's statement is true even if spoken disingenuously by a union-busting politician.  

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.  

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 wellbeing. The “American Dream” never reached all workers but, for the first time in human history, many ordinary workers had a little prosperity.  

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.  

Many 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-led 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  60 to 80 hours a week. Employers had to be forced, through laws and union contracts, to allow workers time for their families or some social life.  

Today the 40-hour week is being destroyed. Employers, to lower costs, are using temporary, part-time workers and “independent contractors.” An estimated 53 million Americans, or one third of the workforce, works in this “gig” economy. The internet and smart phones have contributed by allowing people to work from anywhere and anytime. Many people are back to working more than 40 hours a week, often with multiple jobs.  

Unions serve a number of other 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 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 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 health care.   

Unions help to keep people informed. Unions monitor and analyze legislation to protect workers interests. They do policy research and support organizations to provide data on important issues. 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.   

Through the years union membership has declined. Unions peaked at 35% of the workforce in the 1960s.Today only about 10% of workers are unionized. Between 1950 and 1970 unions helped to build a growing middle class across our country. This trend was reversed beginning in the 1980s with the Reagan presidency. Since then many working-class people experienced falling wages and economic insecurity. Poverty has increased and income inequality increased dramatically. There is a direct connection between union strength and the economic wellbeing of working and middle-class people.  

In Wisconsin the decline exceeded national trends. From 2011 to 2016, under Republican Scott Walker, union representation fell from 14.1 to 9 percent and the share of families in the middle class in Wisconsin fell by 5.7 percent.  

Recently unions are doing a little better. Statistics show an increase in union-represented jobs in 2022, with more than 16 million workers represented by a union. This was an increase of 200,000 from 2021 but still only about 10% of the workforce. The gains were mostly driven by younger workers in the traditionally non-union retail and services industries.  

Unions are increasing in popularity, especially with younger workers. The National Labor Relations Board has had a 53% increase in union election petitions, the highest increase since 2016. In 2022 more than 60 million workers wanted to join a union but did not have that opportunity. The Gallop Poll says 71% of Americans approve of labor unions and 40% of union represented workers say their membership is "extremely important."   

These are hopeful signs for a better future. But, as we all know, what people want often doesn't happen in our rigged economy and political system. The political and economic power the extremely wealthy and the multinational corporations is just too strong.  

History is not predestined or inevitable. Neither is our economic system. We can have more fairness, equality, and freedom in our economy. Unions are an essential tool for making improvements. But making progress requires more of us to support unions. We all need to vote for candidates who support unions. If we do, we will all benefit.