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With her union, Linnette Ebanks felt invisible

President, American Federation of Teachers

Randi Weingarten | 7/3/2014, 12:36 p.m.

For her, a family child care provider in Brooklyn, having a union meant finally having a voice and the power to speak out for what she and other family providers needed to help the children they care for learn and grow. It meant respect and dignity for her work.

That’s what the union movement has always been—a bedrock of our democracy, ensuring working people have a voice and a path to the American dream. Having a union empowers teachers to stand up for their students and their communities, to fight for community schools with services housed on site, art and music, and school nurses and guidance counselors; for increased parent engagement, professional development, project-based learning and teacher-driven innovation. They can stand for less testing and test prep, like educators did in recently concluded contract negotiations in St. Paul, Minn., and New York City.

Having a union empowers nurses to fight for safe staffing ratios so they can better care for their patients and save lives. Having a union allows firefighters and EMTs to negotiate for the lifesaving equipment and staffing levels they need to respond effectively to emergencies.

Having a union offers significant opportunities for a better life for workers, who, historically, have been disenfranchised. Unionization raises wages 12 percent, on average, for African-American workers and more than 11 percent for women. African-American workers in unions are 16 percent more likely to have employer-provided health care and 19 percent more likely to have a pension than their nonunion peers. For women in unions, they are 19 percent more likely to have employer-provided health care and nearly 25 percent more likely to have a pension than nonunion female workers.

Unions still remain a key driver of voice and fairness, equity and opportunity. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the labor movement the “principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” That is truer today than ever.

Our economy is out of whack. Working people who have aspired to the middle class and tried to make a better life for their families have taken it on the chin for years. Stagnating wages, loss of pensions and lack of upward mobility have defined the economic distress they’ve experienced.

Meanwhile, those lining up to make it harder for workers to have a voice and a shot at the American dream are more coordinated and more emboldened than ever before. We face repeated efforts by corporate and monied interests to not only dismantle unions, but also strip the rungs from the ladder of opportunity for all working people.

Last year, the Supreme Court rolled back critical pieces of the Voting Rights Act that have ensured traditionally disenfranchised voters access to the ballot box. This week, that court once again sided with corporate interests over working people. The court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn will make it harder for home health care workers—some of the lowest-wage workers in our country, who care for our parents and grandparents—to join together in a union and fight for a better life for their families and better care for their clients.