My grandfather came to the United States from Austria in the early 1900s and found work as a butcher. Back then, this was a country where if you worked hard, you had a reasonable chance of achieving the American dream.
Immigrant workers built a strong union movement that raised living standards — not just for themselves, but for all working people. By the 1950s, when the AFL-CIO was formed as the national labor federation, one in three workers in America had a union, and millions of families knew that their hard work would be rewarded with a living wage, affordable health care, educational opportunities for their children and a retirement with dignity.
Fast forward to today, when only one in 12 workers in the private sector is in a union and union members no longer have the strength to maintain the world’s largest middle class. Our whole society is paying the price for workers’ loss of unions. Corporate profits and CEO compensation are at an all-time high, but health care is less and less affordable, corporations are eliminating guaranteed pensions and millions of good jobs are being destroyed.
Whereas the standard setters in our economy once were unionized companies like General Motors and AT&T, today the largest employer and trendsetter is nonunion Wal-Mart. At least 70% of its products are made in China by workers exploited for as little as 25 cents per hour. Within the United States, a majority of Wal-Mart workers receives a paycheck below the poverty line, without affordable health care or a pension.
When butchers at a Wal-Mart facility in Texas tried to take their own steps toward the American dream by forming a union, the company responded by putting every one of them out of work. With Wal-Mart setting the pace, one in four workers in America now makes less than $9 an hour — far too little to support a family.
The nation’s drastic drop in unionization has also contributed to backward steps on a broad range of public policies that affect us all. In most elections, union members vote by at least two to one for candidates who are not only pro-worker but who also support quality education, affordable health care, women’s rights, religious tolerance, environmental protection and other progressive causes. The problem is that in many states and cities, there are no longer enough union families to make a difference.
In the 2004 presidential elections, for example, George W. Bush lost among union members by a two-to-one margin, including by large percentages of union members who are gun owners, church goers, white men or married women — all groups that supported Bush among the general population. But in states like Ohio the percentage of union families had declined too much to deny Bush four more years of trying to dismantle Social Security, blocking affordable prescription drugs and shifting vital public resources toward subsidies and loopholes for corporate special interests.
There is, however, good reason to believe that the loss of unions could be turned around, including national polls by Hart Research that have consistently shown over the past five years that between 43% and 53% of non-managerial workers in America would choose to have a union if they had the opportunity. The main reason they don’t is that more than 90% of employers faced with employees’ desire to unionize use intimidation and other tactics to prevent it, according to a Cornell University study.
But some of the responsibility for the decline in unionization falls on the shoulders of unions themselves. Too often, the union movement has remained stuck in the past, perpetuating institutional bureaucracies instead of reaching out to empower today’s work force. In fact, most AFL-CIO unions spend less than 10% of their budgets on helping more workers form unions.
The AFL-CIO’s structure has come to resemble “disorganized labor” more than organized labor. The federation no longer has, in each major industry or sector, a union with the focus, strategy and resources to unite workers who do that type of work. Instead, each union is free to divide workers by seeking members in many different industries. There are 15 significant unions in the transportation sector, 15 in construction, 13 in public employment and nine in manufacturing. Health care workers can be found in at least 30 different unions.
A good example of the damage done by this division of workers’ strength is the airline industry. Workers at any given airline typically are divided into multiple unions that, in turn, are often not the same as the unions for those job categories at other airlines. Facing huge pay cuts and the loss of pensions and health coverage at a time when more passengers are flying than ever before, airline workers have no mechanism for developing and implementing a unified strategy.
In contrast, the members of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, have demonstrated for the past nine years that labor’s freefall can be reversed by concentrating major new resources on helping workers in each industry to unite their strength. The result of that all-out focus is that more than 900,000 additional workers in health care, public service and property services — a majority of them people of color and working women — have joined SEIU, bringing the union’s overall strength to 1.8 million.
The gains these workers win not only change their lives but also pump millions of new dollars into their communities. Strong, growing unions continue to be one of the best anti-poverty, equal opportunity programs in America.
Building on this success, unions that represent a total of 5 million workers have united behind a bold program to change the AFL-CIO and its individual unions and help build a broad progressive movement in America. SEIU, the Teamsters, Laborers, United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here propose to devote more than $1 billion over the next five years to helping millions more working men and women in every industry to form unions. The “Restoring the American Dream” proposal also would launch broad campaigns to win access to affordable, quality health care for all and to make global corporations like Wal-Mart accountable to the communities where they make their profits.
With time running out for American workers and their progressive allies, the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention next month ought to be an historic opportunity to set a new course and give all working people the strength to start winning again. So far, however, the leadership of the AFL-CIO has given only lip service to these goals while refusing to make the changes in strategy, structure and resources it would take to achieve them.
Regardless of whether the AFL-CIO agrees to fundamental reforms, unions committed to change will work with community allies at home and abroad to ensure that hard work is valued and rewarded in the 21st century global economy. As Rabbi Hillel taught us centuries ago, if not us, then who? And if not now, then when?