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The National Memo

Which Side Are You On? A Question for Labor Day—and Every Day

A stronger union movement would not only mean better lives for working families but also provide support for progressive goals like universal health insurance, tuition-free college, and paid family leave.

Union workers picket near the entrance to an AT&T facility as the Communications Workers of America strike against the company alleging AT&T management engaged in unfair labor practices during contract negotiations on August 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. The strike, which started last Friday, involves more than 20,000 employees of the Dallas-based AT&T company across the Southeast United States that are unionized under the Communications Workers of America. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Here’s a Labor Day quiz: Most Americans support unions, but only ten percent are union members. What gives?

Business leaders claim that American workers don’t want or need unions anymore. But a new Gallup poll reveals that Americans’ support for unions has been increasing — from 48 percent in 2009 to 64 percent today.

Researchers at MIT found that if nonunion workers who wanted to join a union could do so, union membership would skyrocket from its current 15 million to 70 million.

So why do unions have such a hard time recruiting new members? The answer is fear.

America’s labor laws are so stacked against workers that it is extremely difficult for even the most committed workers and talented organizers to win union elections. Big business spends big bucks hiring anti-union consultants. Employers can force workers to attend meetings that feature anti-union speeches, films and literature.

Try wearing a union button at a mandated Walmart employee meeting and see what happens.

Union organizers are banned from company property. To reach employees, they must visit their homes or hold secret meetings. One-third of all employers illegally fire at least one worker — typically union leaders — during union organizing drives, scaring other workers from joining the campaign. Federal penalties are so small that companies treat them as a minor cost of doing business.

The 30 years after World War II were the golden age of American capitalism. Prosperity was widely shared. Unions allowed many working people to achieve the American Dream. They could buy homes and cars, take vacations, send their kids to college, afford health insurance and retire with dignity.

Since the 1970s, union membership has plummeted from about one-quarter of all workers, to one-fifth in the 1980s, to one-tenth today.

Among private sector workers, union membership is now a dismal 6.4 percent. Big business’ assault on workers’ rights has had real consequences. Income inequality has widened, wages for working people have stagnated, the middle class has shrunk and American families are deeper in debt. Corporate profits have been climbing, but the share going to workers has not. A new report by the Economic Policy Institute found that from 1978 to 2018, CEO compensation grew by 940 percent, while workers’ wages increased by just 12 percent.

Although the national unemployment rate is below four percent, wages for most workers have not kept pace with the cost of living. Many American households work two or more jobs to make ends meet. (More than 60,000 grocery workers in Southern California, members of the United Food and Commercials Workers union, are currently in contract negotiations with major grocery chains, fighting the corporations’ attempt to slash wages, healthcare, and overtime. The union’s slogan: “One job should be enough”).


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More than 35 percent of non-elderly adults in families with at least one worker report difficulty paying for basic needs such as shelter, food, and medical care.  Even one-fifth of school teachers need a second job to make ends meet. According to a report by the Federal Reserve, most American families don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency. Most of the fast-growing jobs are in low-paying industries.

Right-wing politicians and their corporate backers want unions completely crushed. The anti-union billionaire Koch brothers, for example, have spent tens of millions of dollars to support misnamed “right-to-work” laws designed to weaken organized labor and help elect anti-union Republicans. Right-to-work laws now exist in 27 states.

In its Janus decision last year, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 majority that workers who benefit from their public sector unions’ collective-bargaining efforts owe no obligation to financially support those unions. It’s like allowing people equal police and fire protection even though they refuse to pay taxes.

Despite his rhetoric about being a friend to the American worker, Donald Trump has consistently adopted policies that hurt working families. He has significantly reduced the number of workers eligible for overtime pay. He’s appointed anti-union members to the National Labor Relations Board, which under Trump has served as an ally to corporate America rather than a neutral arbiter of labor-management disputes. He has issued executive orders making it easier to fire federal workers and weaken their unions. He’s refused to support an increase in the federal minimum wage. He has weakened safety regulations for coal miners, farm workers, oil and gas drilling workers, and many others. He has reversed policies designed to prohibit federal government contracts to companies that consistently violate laws regarding workplace safety, wages, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and workers’ right to unionize.

Despite efforts by corporate America and its political allies to undermine workers and their unions, the country has recently witnessed an upsurge of labor activism. Teachers, janitors, grocery clerks, hotel housekeepers, fast-food employees, warehouse employees, port truck drivers, maids and domestic workers, and others have been waging grassroots campaigns to improve pay and working conditions.

Hundreds of cities and many states have adopted minimum wage laws that raise pay far above the federal threshold of $7.25 (in place since 2009) and that help lift working families out of poverty. A growing number of cities and states have passed policies to require employees to provide paid family leave and to [schedules]. Seattle, Oakland, Long Beach and, last week, Santa Monica, adopted local laws that regulate working conditions for hotel housekeepers, including rules that protect them from sexual violence and burdensome workloads. In August 2018, Missouri voters rescinded a right-to-work law by a two-to-one margin.

We can see how this groundswell of activism, and changing public opinion about unions, is shaping the presidential election contest. Every Democratic candidate is promising to not only address the question of widening wealth and income equality but also to revamp federal laws to restore more power to ordinary workers. Sen. Kamara Harris has sponsored a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to extend labor protections (like minimum wages and over-time pay) to housekeepers and nannies. Several candidates have proposals to require corporations to give employees the right to elect representatives to the boards of directors.

Thirteen Democratic senators — including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker — have sponsored the Workplace Democracy Act. It would help union organizers by banning state right-to-work laws, providing “card check” provisions (similar to in Canada, where one-quarter of workers are in unions) that limit employer intimidation during union drives, and help exploited workers who are currently mis-categorized as “independent contractors.” Several candidates are backing a proposal from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to encourage labor and employers to bargain on an industry-wide basis rather than with each separate employer.

None of these proposals will pass unless Democrats win back the White House and both houses of Congress. A stronger union movement would not only mean better lives for working families but also provide support for progressive goals like universal health insurance, tuition-free college, and paid family leave.

The battle is joined. Americans are asking politicians: Which side are you on?

Kelly Candaele

Kelly Candaele was a union organizer for 20 years.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press, revised 2006). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Huffington Post.

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