Rebuild Unions To Rebuild Middle Class

AFSCME President Lee Saunders

by Lee Saunders

You can tell it’s springtime. The extremist right-wing politicians who don’t normally give working families the time of day have fallen madly, deeply, head-over-heels in love with us – with talking about us, that is.

Turn on the TV, listen to the radio or read the paper, and you’ll hear variations on the same theme: Ordinary folks are suffering. The middle class is shrinking. We’re having trouble sending our kids to college and paying our bills, to say nothing of our inability to save for retirement.

All of this is true, but coming from the very people who caused this middle-class meltdown, the words are meaningless. And when you try to go beyond their empty platitudes, all you hear is crickets.

It’s easy for them to say that working families matter. And some of them can even muster the courage to finally acknowledge the obvious: Families’ incomes have fallen while corporate profits have reached astronomical heights. The economy has grown since 1980, but average working people haven’t benefited much. In fact, the only people whose incomes have gone up belong to a very exclusive club – the richest 1 percent.

But what the extremist politicians won’t say — at least not on camera — is that their own union-busting policies created the very problems they suddenly see.

In earlier decades, when wages rose in tandem with economic growth, it was largely because the labor movement was robust enough to help people get into — and stay in — the middle class. Through the power of working people coming together in unions and bargaining collectively, unchecked corporate wealth was reined-in and the folks who helped to create that wealth could share in it.

But fewer people are represented by unions today than 100 years ago. That means workers’ voices are weaker and bosses hold most of the cards. This imbalance means they can keep wages artificially low, be stingy with benefits and take advantage of those who work for them. The extremists don’t want us to have a say in our future; they have rigged the game for their benefit and ordinary Americans are suffering the consequences.

We know that if given the option, more people would join unions because they recognize there is strength in solidarity. But the extremist politicians — and the super-wealthy Americans and corporations that support them — recognize this strength, too. So they’ve spent the last several years passing laws in state after state that weaken unions and make it harder for people to join them. It doesn’t matter how these laws are labeled, they all are intended to do one thing: destroy the labor movement.

Fortunately, Connecticut has run counter to this tide. According to federal labor data, in 2013, the state had 207,000 union members, or 13.5 percent of the workforce. In 2014, Connecticut had 231,000 union members or 14.8 percent of the workforce — a net gain of 24,000 new members.

These gains are in part because graduate student workers at the University of Connecticut, nurses and hospital workers in Danbury and New Milford, and many other workers across the state stood up for better wages and working conditions, and joined a union.

Connecticut workers are continuing to stand up, whether it’s fast food and retail workers who recently rallied in New London, or probate court clerks and court officers who came to our state AFSCME organization seeking legislative approval of a bill that would give them the right to unionize.

This is important, because it isn’t only members who benefit from unions. Unions fight for practices that become widespread and establish wages and norms across job categories and industries. One of these norms was pensions. However, as union density fell, the idea that people who work hard every day should be able to retire with dignity has, unfortunately, receded from too many sectors of our economy.

The good news is that none of this is terribly complicated. Labor unions helped to build the middle class, and they can rebuild the middle class. If the extremist politicians really care about working families, they should stop attacking the labor movement and make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain collectively. No more sweet words. It’s time for meaningful action.

Lee Saunders is president of the 1.6-million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. This article was originally published in the April 19 edition of The Day, New London, Connecticut.