Unions Matter

From the Medium.com

Written by Fred Perez, 2/4/16

We’ve entered the final year of the Obama presidency, a time when we’re taking a look at all we’ve accomplished and what we want to do before the clock runs out. There’s no denying that we’ve made a lot of progress.

In the three months before President Obama took office, our economy shed 2 million jobs — today we’re in the midst of the longest streak of private sector job growth in history, with 14 million jobs created. The unemployment rate was skyrocketing and eventually hit 10 percent — now it’s down to 5 percent. When the president took office, more than 600,000 laid-off workers were applying for unemployment insurance benefits each week — today that number has been 300,000 or less for the longest stretch since 1973.

But this president is not running a victory lap in the final year. We still have some unfinished business to address. This recovery won’t be complete until every American can share in the prosperity being created. Perhaps one of the most pressing domestic issues we face today is the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, and the resulting erosion of the American middle class.

A lot of very intelligent people have a lot of disparate ideas about how we can address this challenge — but there’s one fact that shouldn’t be up for debate: union membership boosts the incomes of workers and their families, provides workers with critical benefits — like health care, retirement security and job training opportunities — and helps people punch their tickets to the middle class.

We were reminded of this fact when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual Union Members report on Jan. 28. It found, once again, that union workers earned about $200 more per week than non-union workers in 2015. Let’s think about that for a minute: $200 more per week that a family could put toward quality daycare for their new baby; $200 more per week to ensure parents can give their families three solid meals a day; $200 more per week to give a family peace of mind that a sudden illness or accident won’t push them over a financial cliff; $200 more per week to pay for the college tuition that a kid was promised if she worked hard and aimed high; $200 more per week to save for the secure retirement a couple deserves after decades of hard work.

But the benefits extend beyond union workers and their families — the solid, family-sustaining wages that unions secure through collective bargaining also put upward pressure on wages throughout the economy. And the protections and high standards demanded by unions influence non-union shops to lift their standards as well.

Unions reinforce the very best of American values. They restore balance to our economy. They help build stronger communities and a more robust democracy. Unions help close the gender pay gap and enhance retirement security. They make a huge difference in the income of African-American and Latino workers — in fact, African-American workers are more likely to be union members than workers from any other racial and ethnic group. In short, unions deliver better overall quality of life.

But the flip side is also true. When folks try to make it harder for workers to organize, when union density shrinks, when people aren’t able to band together and negotiate with their employer, it weakens the middle class. According to the BLS report, about 12 percent of workers were represented by unions in 2015. That’s a steep decline from 23 percent in 1983, the first year for which BLS has comparable data.

If you’re not a union worker, you might wonder why you should care. Here’s why: a recent report from the Center for American Progress found that declining union coverage accounts for more than one-third (35.1 percent) of the decline in the middle class since 1984.

As President Obama said in his State of the Union address and again during his recent trip to Detroit, we can’t let attacks on collective bargaining go unanswered. Make no mistake about it: those attacks are coordinated and well-funded. They’re also dishonest and relentless. They come from special interests who don’t speak for a majority of Americans, but they do wield tremendous influence in the corridors of power.

At the White House, throughout the administration, in state capitals and city halls and in corporate board rooms across America, there are innovative leaders standing up to the notion that you must choose between financial success and respect for workers. That’s why state and local officials are raising minimum wages for workers and expanding access to paid sick and family leave. It’s why forward-looking employers are introducing workplace policies that support families and help them succeed. It’s why President Obama has made retirement security a priority, worked to expand access to job training and moved the ball on equal pay for women. It’s why he has called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage and pass other measures that will improve the lives of working people. And it’s why he’s taken executive action where Congress has failed to act.

There are a lot of smart, well-intentioned people with great ideas about how to create an economy that works for everyone. But let’s be very clear: attacking labor unions isn’t one of them.

Our nation’s middle class was built by the labor movement. If we want this recovery to be complete, we’ll need to once again reinforce a strong American middle class, and we know of one surefire way to do it: support labor unions.

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