Those of us who love the United States and want to see it flourish were astounded when Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers union, became a right to work state in 2013 because of the machinations of its Republican governor and legislature. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his Republican cronies in 2011 deprived public sector workers from engaging in collective bargaining in that state. Walker this year took it up a notch by making Wisconsin a right to work state, a law applauded by wealthy reactionaries across America because it seriously weakens unions.
America needs more unions and stronger unions. As Berlin observed, “Big businesses aren’t concerned with the rights of individual workers; they are concerned about their profits.” Unions stand up for their members and help to level the playing field in an America that is increasingly dominated by powerful corporations. “Every year, thousands of families in the U.S. can rely upon their respective unions to lobby on their behalf and guarantee the continued protection of their salaries and benefits,” Vanessa Berrera wrote in ”Student Perspective: The Importance of Unions in the 21st Century.” Berrera knows firsthand what unions can do for members and their families. She’s the Sheet Metal Workers Local 104 scholarship recipient. “For as long as I can remember,” she remarked, “the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union has been present in my life, providing my family with numerous benefits, privileges, and educational opportunities.”
Unions have never been popular with Republicans, who represent the interests of big business and the affluent, but the GOP’s all-out war on organized labor began in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union, whose members had gone on strike. Ayn Rand disciple Alan Greenspan praised this event because it “gave weight to the legal right of private employers…to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.” In an essay for the New York Times, however, Joseph A. McCartin wrote, “Reagan…. undermined the bargaining power of American workers and their labor unions.” Reagan’s destruction of this union “also polarized our politics in ways that prevent us from addressing the root of our economic troubles: the continuing stagnation of incomes despite rising corporate profits and worker productivity.”
The decline of unions has had dire consequences for all Americans who aren’t wealthy. In her article “Middle-Class Decline Mirrors The Fall Of Unions In One Chart,” Caroline Fairchild cited a report from the Center for American Progress that noted the correlation between declining middle class income and declining union membership. “The middle 60 percent of households earned 53.2 percent of national income in 1968,” she wrote. “That number has fallen to just 45.7 percent. During that same period, nationwide union membership fell from 28.3 percent to a record-low 11.3 percent of all workers.”
Time is running out for us. “As the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow, it’s clear that something needs to be done to rebuild the middle class,” the United Food and Commercial Workers warned in an article on the union’s web site. “Making it easier for workers to stick together in a union to bargain for better wages and benefits is a good place to start.” I couldn’t agree more. Contact a union organizer to learn how you can form a union where you work. Let’s rebuild America’s middle class by rebuilding America’s labor movement!
John J. Dunphy of Godfrey is a writer and poet. He is the author of “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois” and owns the Second Reading Book Shop in Alton.