If there is dignity in all work, why isn’t there dignity for all workers? It’s a question worth considering this Labor Day.
Throughout history, when working people have become “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” they have organized unions. This is how they broke the back of sweatshops in this country. And how they forced the end of child labor, so 10-year old kids could attend free public schools instead — another successful labor demand. It’s how they cleaned up dangerous workplaces and the surrounding neighborhoods that suffered from toxic pollution. And it’s how minority and women workers have been able to successfully fight income inequality.
But still the doubters and the haters persist. A never-ending onslaught from corporate America and their conservative political buddies would have us believe unions are greedy dinosaurs that turn workers into mindless zombies. Let’s bust a few of those myths:
“Union membership has shrunk to an all-time low.”
Not in Connecticut it hasn’t.
Last year, membership rose by 14.8 percent, more than new 24,000 workers. They won legal rights to fairness on the job and the ability to collectively bargain their wages and benefits. In our state, they join a total of 231,000 union members.
Connecticut has a long tradition of honoring the folks who stand together for respect and power on the job. This trend got a big boost in 1860, when Abe Lincoln, referring to a massive strike of union shoe workers, told a Hartford audience “I am glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to. I wish to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.”
In the U.S. only 12 percent of working adults belong to a union. (That’s one in eight.) There are many reasons why membership is down, but hostility towards unionization isn’t one of them. Last month’s Gallup poll showed that nearly 60 percent of Americans approve of unions (the low was 48 percent in 2009). The biggest approval rating: 18- to 34-year-olds.
There is no groundswell of opposition to unions, but there is plenty of big money (I’m looking at you, Koch brothers) that fund Wisconsin-like attacks on the right of workers to effective workplace representation.
“Maybe we needed unions in the past, but not now.”
Tell that to the 7,000 Connecticut home care workers, the 3,000 daycare providers, and the 1,500 UConn Graduate Assistants who organized their unions in 2014.
They have long suffered poverty wages while the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders (some who live in Connecticut) were paid a total of $16.7 billion in 2012. According to Nobel economist Paul Krugman, that’s equal to the pay of 400,000 ordinary workers.
The new “Fight for $15 and a Union” movement has shaken the ground in cities here and across the country. They are challenging the false notion that low-wage jobs (like fast food) are just for teenagers. Many are adults with children, demanding a living wage, not just a minimum wage.
Our unions still fight for improved health and safety laws, against the erosion of voting rights, in defense of women’s reproductive health services, and for the use of international diplomacy over endless war.
Without unions, “a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism” Pope Francis asserts. Unions are “an essential force for social change,” he says.
“Unions are corrupt and just want your dues.”
Corruption occurs in every profession. Ask John Rowland. But for every Jimmy Hoffa there are thousands of workers who are more like the legendary farmworker leader Cesar Chavez.
They are hard working, self-sacrificing women and men who take great risks on behalf of their co-workers and families. Against all their training in school and life to “watch out for Number One,” they cooperate for the common good. “In union there is strength” is transformed from an old adage into a working principle on the job.
They pay dues because they understand the union is the vehicle that can drive them toward workplace justice, and dues are the gasoline. And, by the way, the 27,000 members of my union elect all their representatives and vote on the dues they pay.
All working people are worthy of honor and respect, but they still have to fight for dignity on the job. Joining a union is — by far — still the best way to get it.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for The Shoeleather History Project.