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GUEST COMMENTARY: Why unions are good for us all



This Labor Day, I'm so grateful for the leadership of our trade unions in fighting for good jobs and working conditions.

Remember President George W. Bush's proposal to privatize social security? Fortunately, the Democratic Congress would not budge. If they had, millions of seniors would have been bilked by the Wall Street derivative and mortgage scandal, their retirement incomes permanently downsized. The American labor movement was a key group opposing privatization.

Minimum wage increases for all? Another labor priority, even though most union members make well above that. Worker health and safety? The AFL-CIO is a vigilant watchdog for OSHA and good working conditions. A social safety net? Unions are the most reliable, and vocal, defenders.

Organized labor is the only large interest group consistently fighting for working- and middle-class prosperity in both Washington and at our state legislature. They are out-gunned by well-heeled corporate lobbies. The Chamber of Commerce, an organization with nonprofit status, routinely spends lavishly to defeat minimum wage increases and health and safety standards.

Labor doesn't have a lot of money to spend on these efforts — only its members' modest dues. These go to support member services, bargaining and organizing staff, grievances and research. Lobbying is expensive, but union leaders remain staunchly committed to it. Their strength is in the numbers of working voters they serve, not in their coffers.

Why, across the advanced industrial countries, did unions emerge in the first place? Because in the 19th century, unfettered capitalism bred huge monopolies that exploited workers' vulnerabilities. Steelworkers in Pittsburgh toiled in hot dangerous mills 80 hours a week, and many of them died for it. Unions formed as mutual assistance community groups and fought for an eight-hour day, a living wage, and the right to speak as one voice in bargaining in negotiations with an employer's single voice. In the 1930s, when a third of Americans were unemployed and corporations tried to exploit people's desperation, a new round of industrial workers organized the auto, coal, oil and chemical unions.

Union efforts have brought us balance and prosperity. Higher wages encouraged employers to become more productive and competitive. Workers earned enough to buy the food, appliances, and cars that our farms and factories pumped out. In the post-World War II era, unionizing drives brought service and public sector workers into the fold.

Many of our family members and neighbors work in union jobs. Nurses. Construction workers. Road graders. Teachers. Mill workers. Communications workers. Their incomes, pensions, and health and safety protections are key to our regional health and economic vitality. They raise prevailing wages and workplace standards. Non-union employers pay more and provide better working conditions when they know their employees have nearby options.

Corporate-bankrolled political campaigns, heavily funded from out of state, seek to pit workers against each other. Spearheaded by the State Policy Network (SPN), an alliance of 66 state-based "thinktanks" with a combined annual budget of $80 million, they argue: "why should 'they' make 'so much?'" But what about the huge and growing gap between corporate executive pay and workers' take-home pay? The deliberately unfunded pension liabilities?

And the mis-named "right to work" laws? When majority of workers vote for a union, the gains they win cover everyone in the plant or office. So all working in the organized shop should pay union dues. We don't allow free riders in the public sector — if you don't pay your taxes for your share of national defense, parks and recreation, and education, the government will come after you. It's not fair to the rest of us.

Unions, by the way, are democratic — if you don't like your elected leaders, you can vote them out. Locally, regionally, nationally. Not true of the corporations we buy from and work for. No voice in how they are run.

We all benefit from unionized workplaces. We benefit when our neighbors can support local retail businesses. Pay taxes for our schools, roads and social services. And afford to keep their homes, maintaining our property values. We benefit when unions fight to maintain and raise minimum wages, preserve social security, extend healthcare to all, and ensure safe workplaces.

Next time you are talking with a union man or woman in our community, ask them about the benefits, what their union is doing for the larger community. It might not all be bliss. But, as poll after poll reveals, a large majority of Americans wish they could belong to a union. I am personally grateful for unions' policy work in ordinary folks' best interests.