Here’s a sad but true fact: labor unions in America are weaker than in other industrialized nations. Today, in America, just 10.5 percent of all workers are in a union, and in the private sector, only one in 16 workers are in a union. This is largely because corporations have become very skilled and aggressive at fighting unionization. The negative consequences are enormous. They are evident in countless ways, from diminished workers’ rights to the diminished political power of labor unions. For example, of the three dozen industrialized countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage at just 34 percent of the typical wage compared with 62 percent in France and 54 percent in Britain. We also have the second-highest percentage of low wage workers, behind Latvia, which is No. 1.
As far as policy power, all of the country’s labor unions combined spend about $48 million a year lobbying in Washington, while America’s corporations spend approximately $3 billion annually. There is no question that America’s workers are losing out in their political influence and, most importantly, their pocketbooks. It’s no wonder that a recent M.I.T. study found that 46 percent of nonunion workers say they would like to be in a union. Clearly, opportunity does exist to expand union membership—an opening that many nonunion groups are keenly aware of. However, the actions of some are counter-productive. For example, the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America has expressed dissatisfaction with unions as not being aggressive enough on worker issues and presented its members with a plan to gain entry into six of our most powerful unions to organize members to become their own. Vincent Alvarez, president of NYC Central Labor Council, said it best: “It makes no sense that at a time when solidarity is needed to fight for real gains in economic opportunity and social justice for working families that the DSA would sow the seeds of disunity by targeting some of the most progressive unions in our city with plans for infiltration and disruption.”
Now is the time for unions to get back to basics.
Even though Ralph Chaplin wrote the song “Solidarity Forever” in 1915 for the Industrial Workers of World War I, its refrain is as relevant and important today as it was more than 100 years ago: “When the union’s inspiration thru the worker’s blood shall run, there can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun, yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one, but the union makes us strong. Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.”
We must also keep in mind the words of other great advocates of labor unions, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and even Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dr. King told us “The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standard of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.” President Kennedy said: “Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.” President Eisenhower said that America was better off because of unions and that “Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
Now is the time for unions to fight back.
The Labor Day parade along Fifth Avenue is great, but in this political climate, parades are not enough. We can’t let union membership become an endangered species. Unlike pandas or dolphins, union members still have opportunity and resources to fight back. Labor leaders in New York have made it crystal clear to our elected officials and candidates that unions built the middle class in America. We just want to make sure that there will be a place in it for our own children. You can’t fault us for that! And we need to use every opportunity to remind them that labor still has a powerful voice and millions of votes. That always seems to get their attention. And one more thing: in New York there is a sense that whether you’re in a public or private union it doesn’t matter, we’re all in the same family. An assault on one is an assault on all of us. That same spirit was seen during the push to convene a Constitutional Convention. It would have had a devastating effect on public sector pensions and other benefits the Constitution guaranteed. But the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated because all unions got together to defeat it. We also sought and received the help of non-union groups who saw the push to lessen the role of labor unions for what it really is: an attack on democracy perpetrated by the special interests of the well-funded corporate 1 percent.
The labor movement needs to approach future challenges, like the upcoming census, with the same unity and fervor. We also need to fight our fights for our own on our own. That does not mean we shouldn’t seek allies. But simply: there is no substitute for labor unions. Sometimes we forget that. Some never knew that or ignored the fact. But history reaffirms: the 40-hour workweek, health benefits, $15 an hour minimum pay, paid vacation and family leave are just some of our hard-fought—and won—battles.
Now is the time to understand that unions ARE aggressive. Unions ARE progressive. Our history proves it. Our history didn’t begin today. And, for tomorrow, now is the time to act.