What Good is a Union in 2017?

by AFT Political Action VP Jim Miller

What is there to celebrate this coming Labor Day for the average American?  We live in troubled times and many of us in the United States are increasingly anxious or angry as we see the American Dream slipping away right before our eyes as the middle class shrinks and the gap between the very rich and the rest of us continues to grow.


Of course things weren’t always so discouraging for working folks and, as recently as the middle of the twentieth century, what Robert Reich has called the “great compression” helped build the American middle class to its historic zenith as people saw their wages increase, their educational and economic opportunities expand, and their political power grow as the government responded to increasing pressure from below and employers felt the need to compromise with rather than put the screws to their workforces.


While many people have a vague nostalgia for the times before the great unraveling of economic security for most Americans, many have forgotten what helped make the good old days for the middle class good: unions.


Fortunately, just in time for Labor Day, the Economic Policy Institute has released a comprehensive study detailing why, particularly when the labor movement faces existential challenges, unions are still the answer for much of what ails us.  The report, How Today’s Unions Help Working People: Giving Workers the Power to Improve their Jobs and Unrig the Economy, notes while “decades of anti-union campaigns and policies have made it much harder for working people to use their collective voice to sustain their standard of living,” labor unions and “collective bargaining is essential for a fair and prosperous economy and a vibrant democracy.”


Noting the new gender, racial, educational, and occupational diversity of today’s unions, the report goes on to document how the labor union movement makes us all stronger.  More specifically, some of the report’s conclusions are that:


               *Unions strengthen democracy by giving workers a voice in policy debates


               *Unions reduce inequality and are essential for low-and middle-wage workers’ ability to obtain a fair share of economic growth  


               *Unions raise wages for both union and nonunion workers


               *Unions help raise wages for women and lessen racial wage gaps


               *Unions improve the health and safety practices of workplaces


               *Unions support strong families with better benefits and due process


               *Unions are good for workers’ retirement security


               *Unions create a path to sharing knowledge and solving problems


The report then goes on to outline how despite (or perhaps because of) these benefits that unions bring, employers more-often-than-not fight unionization with aggressive, intimidating, and frequently illegal tactics.  Employers have also taken to reclassifying workers as “independent contractors” so they cannot form unions.  In addition to this, the study observes, corporate lobbyists are pushing misleading “right to work” laws that seek to defund private sector unions across America and are attacking public sector unions by going after their ability to collect dues in the courts.


The biggest of the legal threats this study mentions is the upcoming Janus vs AFSCME case that most observers of the Supreme Court believe will be heard in this coming next term.  For those of us in the labor movement, Janus is déjà vu all over again.  As a recent piece in the Economist:

This may sound familiar. Two years ago, in Friedrichs v California Teachers Association, the Supreme Court took up the complaint of Rebecca Friedrichs, a disgruntled public-school teacher in California who sued her union for compelling her to pay agency fees. The oral argument in January 2016 seemed to herald a win for Ms. Friedrichs . . . Before the Supreme Court could issue a ruling in Friedrichs, the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died, leaving the court split 4-to-4. That tie affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favour of the union, leaving agency fees intact for the time being. But Mr Janus’s case was already working its way through the federal courts when Friedrichs ended in impasse. Now those who would like to see the end of agency fees for the 7.8m public employees in 22 states where unions are authorised to collect them will probably have another shot. Barring a late-breaking change of heart by one of the conservative justices, Mr Janus seems very likely to score a victory should the Supreme Court agree to hear his case.

Given the new anti-labor majority on the US Supreme Court, it is a near certainty that Janus will succeed in its attempt to gut the power of public sector unions and the labor movement as a whole.  What will this do to those workers?  Initially, it will surely lead to cuts in wages, health insurance, and retirement benefits as it has in states where similar assaults on public sector unions have succeeded.  Of course the goal of all of this is to, as the Governor of Illinois explains in the Economist, “change the culture and the power structure in Illinois . . . and across America.”

And that change, they hope, will rig the economy and American politics in favor of the interests of the rich for the foreseeable future.


Despite all of these threats, How Today’s Unions Help Working People concludes that “unions—when strong—have the capacity to tackle some of the biggest problems that plague our economy, from growing economic inequality, wage stagnation, and racial and gender inequities to eroding democracy and barriers to civic participation.”   Because of this, the authors argue, “Americans of all ages, occupations, races and genders have a vested interest in making sure our economy works for everyone.  To promote an inclusive economy and a robust democracy, we must work together to rebuild our collective bargaining system.”


If we don’t find a way to do this our history suggests that we’ll back to the bad old days of the Robber Barons of the 19th century where workers had next to no rights in the workplace, little economic security, and no significant voice in American democracy.


How do we respond to the current crisis when it seems that so much is stacked against us? Perhaps we go back to that same history and think about how workers past, with far fewer resources at their disposal than we have now, fought to broaden American democracy and recognize the dignity and autonomy of working people.  They fought against the odds, demanded the impossible, and prevailed to make the United States a fairer and more decent society for ordinary people.


As Naomi Klein argues in her most recent book No is Not Enough: 


Here is one theory: The interplay between lofty dreams and earthly victories has always been at the heart of moments of deep transformation.  The breakthroughs won for workers and their families after the Civil War and during the Great Depression, as well as for civil rights and the environment in the sixties and early seventies, were not just responses to crises.  They were responses to crises that unfolded in times when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public-explosions of utopian imagination.


Only we, together, can win the world we need.