Executive Director Reports

The Union Difference is our nation’s hope

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Building stronger unions helps lift us all up

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently sponsored a Summit on Poverty aimed at developing a strategy to lift all of the city’s residents out of poverty. It’s a more than worthy goal and the mayor deserves credit for putting the issue front and center.

For too long, residents of communities across our state have been struggling to get by, living from paycheck to paycheck or struggling even to find jobs, especially jobs that pay a living wage.

In fact, despite the nation’s steadily declining unemployment rate, good jobs in our country are still all too hard to find.

By good job, I mean a family-supporting job. One that doesn’t require you to hold a second job, that provides benefits like affordable health insurance and a retirement plan. In other words, for the most part, I mean a union job.

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King said the most effective anti-poverty program in America is a good union. Especially for women and people of color, that remains truer than ever today. Last year, union members earned 23% more than nonunion workers.

Among women, the union difference in wages was even greater at 29%. For African-Americans, wages were 27% higher, and for Hispanics, 39%.

So having a strong union is one of the best predictors of whether a job will pay a family-sustaining wage. A union contract that ensures equal pay for equal work is the best bulwark against gender inequity and racial bias. And union membership is the most likely indicator of access to affordable health care and the promise of dignity in retirement.

But rather than expanding union membership to help boost more Americans into the middle class, the rich and powerful have embarked on a fierce and unrelenting offensive against labor unions. It is no coincidence that over the same 40-year period of political attacks and policy choices that have eroded union membership nationwide, middle-class income has stagnated and the gap between the rich and the rest of us has grown ever wider.

The decline in union membership is no accident of fate or economic fortunes. It’s a purposeful strategy designed to shift more of our country’s wealth to the already-wealthy.

The tactics used to diminish or demolish unions are varied and not always visible. We tend to think that union density declined with the decline of the manufacturing sector in our country. But those good jobs didn’t just wander off overseas. They were deliberately moved to countries that lacked unions and had an abundance of desperately poor people willing to work for vastly lower wages.

In the ensuing years, the assault on the labor movement has been waged in the courts, media, state and federal legislatures, and of course in the political arena.

Few examples have been more dramatic than the near-obliteration of public sector unions in Wisconsin after Republican governor Scott Walker joined with a Republican-controlled legislature to enact laws that made it virtually impossible for public employees in that state to engage in collective bargaining. Whenever Republicans gained control in other states—Iowa and Missouri, for instance—similar union-destruction laws followed there as well.

But no such laws could be enacted in any state that still had Democratic leadership in at least one branch of the government. In Illinois, where Bruce Rauner rode into office boasting that he would take down public employee unions—and held up a state budget for two years trying to force that annihilation—Democratic state legislators held firm in defending workers’ rights to collective bargaining.

As a last resort, the enemies of labor turned to the courts, where Donald Trump’s recent appointments to the US Supreme Court cemented a judicial brigade all too ready to further weaken unions in our country. The result was the infamous Janus ruling in 2018 that allowed union-represented employees to refuse to pay union dues.

But we regrouped and fought even harder.

Public employees did not drop out of their unions in the wake of the Janus ruling—in fact, many former feepayers signed up as full dues-paying members. As workers in all sectors realized the forces aligned against them, many became even bolder. Teachers staged statewide walkouts in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma. Thousands of autoworkers went out on strike. Workers in high-tech firms like Amazon and Google organized pickets and other direct actions. As Republicans solidified their all-out war on unions, Democrats became even stronger advocates for workers’ rights.

We still have a very long journey on the road to ending poverty and ensuring that all workers have a decent standard of living. Those of us who have made it some part of the way because we have strong union representation cannot be complacent. If the powers-that-be succeed in “defanging” the labor movement as one right-wing organization described its goal, then we too will be left disarmed and powerless.

It’s essential that we recognize that in helping other workers to form unions, expanding our ranks, supporting legislation that raises the minimum wage and bringing everyone along with us, we are helping ourselves as well. And in the process, we are building the best possible force for ending poverty in our time.