In Defense of Labor Unions

Attorney General Lisa Madigan speaks as labor unions rally outside the Supreme Court Monday
Attorney General Lisa Madigan speaks at a union rally outside the Supreme Court Monday. PHOTO: Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

America’s history of labor relations is like a game of tug-of-war. Over the years, pro-worker and pro-business factions have battled over labor rights. However, the labor market of our grandparents is not the labor market we live in today.

Our current situation is formulated from two laws that are vital to understanding how labor relations operate in the United States today.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1935 National Labor Relations Act, commonly referred to as the Wagner Act, allowed a company to decide whether the employees must be union and whether non-union employees would have to join a union to work. However, the Taft-Hartley Act, formally known as the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, undid union requirements and authorized states to restrict unions, which birthed the modern “right-to-work” movement.

This “right-to-work” movement has spread across the United States in recent decades, and the number of “right-to-work” states has increased to 28.  Though not a new idea, this renewed interest in “right-to-work” has become a dangerous political game with significant risks. Political attacks on organized labor ignore the purposes of labor unions. The ability to organize to obtain safe working conditions, livable wages, and benefits like health care and pensions, can be easily swept away by this political fad.

In a Huffington Post blog post, Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan from Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District commented on the importance of unions to the working class.

“The story of unions is the story of America’s middle class. Unions have been essential in gaining safer working conditions, better wages and benefits, and empowering workers to have a seat at the table.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, union workers’ wages are 27 percent greater than non-union workers’ wages. Seventy-nine percent of unionized workers receive health insurance from their employers, compared to only 49 percent of non-union workers. Seventy-six percent of union workers have guaranteed defined-benefit pension plans, compared to only 16 percent of non-union workers. Eighty-three percent of union workers receive paid sick leave compared to only 62 percent of non-union workers.

There is no doubt that unions benefit working families, but since the 1970s, union membership has been in serious decline and we have seen wages stagnate. One of the root causes of declining wages is that workers’ ability to join together and bargain for higher wages and better working conditions has been severely undermined. We have also seen targeted attacks against unions by Republicans all across the country including the passage of so-called ‘right to work’ laws, which further lower wages and weaken workplace protections.”

On a large scale, these attacks on unions have correlated with declining union membership and the stagnation of wages. These stagnant wages affect both union and non-union members of the working class.

Current Supreme Court cases like Janus v. AFSCME threaten to exacerbate attacks on unions and endanger a union’s ability to protect their members and the working class.

Corporations argue that labor is just one of their many costs and that labor comes and goes. Though they believe that workers can be easily replaced, they can’t. These workers fill strenuous, dirty, and complex jobs. These are the people that build our cars, teach our kids, construct our houses and businesses, pave our roads, deliver our mail, and keep us healthy.

With unions forming a last stand to preserve living wages and benefits, they deserve our political and legal protection. But how did we get here? And more importantly, how do we move forward?

Without acknowledging how we got into this situation, we will not be able to rectify this issue going forward.

Wages have remained relatively stagnant since the 1970s while the cost of living has increased. Jobs, especially in manufacturing, are hemorrhaging out of the United States. And to make all of these factors worse, political and corporate elites have used the working class as pawns in the sick game of politics.

Companies pretend to be “American,” but don’t use American made materials or employ American labor. Politicians promise to bring back manufacturing jobs and “fight” for the working family but pursue policies that hurt union members and the working class. Democrats refuse to acknowledge the loss of manufacturing jobs and the damage that trade deals and globalization have done to the manufacturing sector. They refuse to prioritize reviving the manufacturing sector as part of their main platform. Additionally, they favor tax-heavy policies that cut into working-class families’ already limited paychecks.

On the other hand, Republicans defend “right-to-work” laws that harm workers, appoint judges that deflate union protections, and attack Democratic connections to labor union leadership without regard to the actual members of the union itself.

This leaves it to all of us, not just one political party trying to gain an edge in the electorate, to work together to protect the hardest-working group of Americans for the good of the country.

About Alexander Warshal 3 Articles
Alexander Warshal attends Michigan State University and is an advocate for bipartisanship. Alexander is an Independent and has been involved in both Democratic and Republican political organizations. Follow him on Twitter @ajwarshal

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