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.