Why unions matter

Gregory Floyd | 2/6/2020, 12:41 p.m.
It’s hard to believe, but five years have passed since I was sworn into office. Standing in the same spot ...
President, Teamsters Local 237

It’s hard to believe, but five years have passed since I was sworn into office. Standing in the same spot and having the oath administered again by our General President James P. Hoffa, still conjured up that same feeling of pride. Yet, I had the sense that things were somehow very different.

So much has changed in the world around us. And, in so many ways the changes have not been for the better. I feel as though we live in a different city. Actually, we live in a different America. We’ve gotten colder toward one another. To some degree, we’ve become less sensitive to human suffering. There’s just so much of it. The headlines bombard us with stories about gun violence, homelessness, hunger and predators of every kind. We may feel badly, but so many have just given up the hope to turn things around.

Added to that, our standards for what is acceptable or normal behavior have become less normal, and less acceptable to me. For example, School Safety Agents, whom my union represents, face a world of diluted standards every day. Behavior that previously would have resulted in at least a summons—like when a student brings bags of marijuana into school—today results in a toothless “Warning Card” which is not even a slap on the wrist!

Another thing that has really changed over the last five years which is a major concern to labor leaders like myself is the image of labor unions. Today, the problem of union bashers and busters has expanded. Now, we’re not just fighting the corporate 1% and elected officials they help to put into office. We’re fighting within our own base, many of whom wrongly claim that labor unions are not aggressive enough or progressive enough. They think that they can do better. To them I say: read the history books. Check the facts. We have fought the big fights. And won! The 40-hour work week, safety guarantees, health benefits, paid vacation and a $15-an-hour minimum wage weren’t just given to us. They are not in the Constitution or among the Ten Commandments. But they have become practice, policy and law because of the push by unions.

There simply is no substitute for labor unions. We are still powerful and impactful. And union members are not the only ones who should agree. Recently, I attended a conference of financial advisors. Called to the podium for remarks, I started off by stating some true—but sad—facts about unions today: Labor union membership is at an all-time low. Today, only 10.5% of America’s workers belong to a union. In the private sector, only 1 in 16 workers belong to a union. Compare that to peak years, in the 1950s, when union membership was at 40%. I went on to discuss some of our many victories, which I pointed out, although they were focused on worker rights, those rights are inextricably intertwined with civil rights. One needs to go no further than the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 52 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, where he went to join striking sanitation workers fighting for fairness and dignity in the workplace. Indeed, labor victories are not only about labor. Nor are they just for union members. Our victories are for all workers. Keep in mind that recent studies have shown that, as union membership decreases, inequality increases. The Economic Policy Institute, for example, found that annual earnings for CEO’s skyrocketed 940% since 1978, while the average worker’s earnings only received a 12% bump for the same period of time.

Unfortunately, despite the evidence about why unions matter, efforts have accelerated to limit union power nationwide: in Wisconsin, with Gov. Scott Walker’s crackdown on the teachers union; in the south and mid-west, where a total of 28 “Right-to-Work” states passed laws making it illegal to compel workers to pay union dues, and, perhaps the biggest blow coming from the Supreme Court with its 2018 decision in the Janus case, ruling that public sector employees don’t have to pay dues to be part of a union negotiating on their behalf. Luckily, here in New York, which has the highest percentage of union members in the nation—we’re at 24%––our governor, Andrew Cuomo, by executive order, signed into law provisions that made becoming a “free-loader” a little more difficult to do.

Today, I often hear the question of whether unions matter at all.

To me, the answer is a no-brainer and is why our swearing-in ceremony was so meaningful and symbolic. It’s not just that union members earn, on average, 13% more than non-union workers. Nor is the answer that worker protections apply to all workers, union and non-union workers. No, the answer is not even about the peace of mind consumers have knowing that products and services are delivered by union workers and as such, come with a certain guarantee of quality assurance…(Wouldn’t you prefer to live in a high rise built by union labor?) Yet, probably the most compelling argument on why unions matter is that they are an equalizing force in our national economy. Unions took a leadership role in getting this nation back on its feet following the Great Depression, and––after World War II––unions played a pivotal role in building the stabilizing force of a strong middle class. Now, our unions battle to maintain that middle class so that our children and grandchildren––plus new citizens and long-time citizens––will be included. Volumes have been written about the American Dream. In my view, the middle class is the fulfillment of that dream. Labor unions help to keep that dream alive.

But for unions to have a strong role in the future, they need a strong voice in the present. And our vote is our voice. It’s the best way to be heard. With so many offices up for election––from the White House to Borough Hall––this is really what some have called a “battle for the soul of our nation,” clearly, not an over-statement. And, labor unions have an important role in determining the outcome. If we want a nation where the law of the land includes everyone in it; a nation that pulls people up, not tears them apart; a nation of compassion, not cruelty; a nation in which it doesn’t matter where you’re from or how you started—unions have always been the go-to catalyst for change. With so much at stake, the problem is that, especially in this anti-union climate––which paints a public image of union membership as obsolete, ineffective and out of touch––we must ask ourselves: are we headed for extinction or can labor unions take on the challenges before us?

For me, the answer is summed up in the words of our General President Hoffa as he was about to administer our oath of office. He said the oath was “a re-commitment to our members. Like renewing marital vows. As leaders, it’s the time to ask yourself if you believe in this oath. Are you sincere? We’re here today because the answer is yes. So now, you have to look in the mirror and think about how we can make the lives of our members better. And despite the fact that we’ve all become a little jaded by some of the successes we’ve had along the way, know that we are Teamsters, and we just keep going on, and on and on.”

That’s why we celebrate our new term of office.

Gregory Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large on the general board of the IBT.