Executive Director Reports

One Goal—Keeping the American Dream Alive

June-July, 2015

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

When the Chicago Blackhawks secured their third Stanley Cup in mid-June, hockey fans all across Illinois hoisted their glasses—or their bottles—in celebration. And when the Blackhawks cavalcade made its way through the streets of downtown Chicago a few days later, two million elated supporters lined the sidewalks and packed Soldier Field where the victory rally was held.

JUST ABOUT EVERYONE RECOGNIZES THAT THE BLACKHAWKS, LIKE CHICAGO’S OTHER SPORTS TEAMS, are a vital part of the city’s spirit—and its economy. That same kind of fervent interest, intense loyalty, and economic reverb can be found in virtually every locale in America that has a pro sports team.

Every season these professional athletes play their hearts out, exhilarating, often electrifying, the cities that are proud to call them the ‘home team.’ Often overlooked in all the rahrah is that all of these heralded players are also labor union members.

Think about it. At a time when the corporate elite in this country is waging an unprecedented war on the very existence of labor unions, some of the best-paid employees in the nation hold fast to their right to collective bargaining.

Over the years, team owners have tried every tactic to break athletes’ unions, but they haven’t succeeded yet. Players have seen enough, close-up, of the avarice of their bosses to hold to the fundamental union precept that “we’re stronger together.”

The pervasiveness of unions in professional sports offers a frontal challenge to the right-wing argument that unions undermine individual initiative and collective productivity. Who could doubt that professional athletes are giving it their all every time they suit up? Who could argue that professional sports teams don’t function with an extraordinarily high level of discipline and efficacy? Who could claim with even a modicum of credibility that unions are impeding the success of the teams we cheer for?

In fact, the opposite argument can be made—that having a union that assures fair treatment improves player morale and team cohesion.

That same argument holds even greater weight for employees who aren’t sports superstars. The more workers can have the respect and fairness that a union helps to guarantee, the more they are motivated to concentrate on the jobs before them and give that work their all.

The economic benefits of unions for workers are undisputed. Unions helped to build the American middle class—and unions today are critical to sustaining it. One recent study found that the median earnings of union members are nearly $10,000 higher than those of non-union workers.

But it is that very fact—that unions raise wages-—that has spurred the efforts of the big money class to obliterate unions entirely. Despite the fact that income is ever more concentrated at the very top—with the richest 3% now controlling more wealth than 90% of the people in this country—the super-rich are bound and determined to drive down the wages of average working people.

The good news is that it’s not just professional athletes who are “stickin’ to the union.” Working people all across this country and in every sector are standing together against the assault on their basic right to have a voice at work.

Here in Illinois, we’ve demonstrated unprecedented unity in packing city council and county board meetings from one end of the state to the other to block Bruce Rauner’s efforts to force local governments to endorse his union destruction agenda. And AFSCME members in state government have stood up by the thousands in recent weeks to resist Rauner’s attempt to decimate their union contract.

Perhaps most encouraging, more and more young people are joining labor’s ranks. A recent poll found that favorability for unions was highest of any age group among those 18-29. And the pro-union vote by employees at Gawker Media, youthful and tech-oriented, is an important indication of the potential role of unions in the technology sector.

I draw particular inspiration from the young people in our own Illinois AFSCME family, like the young scholarship winners featured in this issue of On the Move. While working as a paramedic, Matthew Whalen is also attending college to become a labor lawyer who can “expand the rights of workers to collectively bargain”. Jocelyn Rosas, who plans to become a teacher, believes that the labor movement “is needed more today than ever” to check the growing power of corporations. And Graham Gusloff, heading off to ISU to study theater, already plans to become a member of Actors Equity: “I hope I have the support and protection of a labor union up until my last curtain call.”

I’d say that’s what most of us want. But hope alone won’t get us there. Like the Blackhawks, we have to focus on One Goal: doing all that we possibly can right now to defeat the ruthless assault that is underway not just on labor unions, but on the American Dream of fairness for all that unions have been so critical to building and sustaining.