“You must throw your body on the gears and on the levers and on the machine itself, and make it stop.” – “Chief” Galen Tyrol from Battlestar Galactica, serving as a union organizer, inspired by Mario Savio’s 1964 speech in Berkley, California.
Unions in the United States get a bad rap these days – the Republicans demonize them, the Democrats virtually ignore them in their messaging. Union membership has been declining in the U.S. since 1954, with a national average of only 12.4%. (This is extremely small in comparison to Europe, where rates are as high as 70% in Sweden.) In polls, people associate unions with negative phrases more than positive phrases. Much of this reputation is unjustified, as organized labor has enabled invaluable material progress throughout history. Both my husband and I have personally benefitted from being part of unions. But in many ways, they’re not helping their own cause; with some change in focus, unions could garner far more support among the general public and actually serve their members better than they do.
Organized labor has brought many advances that are quickly forgotten in modern society. On the job site, we can thank unions for the 40 hour workweek, overtime if you’re in an hourly job, and safety standards. In the broader society, organized labor helped push for free public education, universal suffrage, and abolishing debtors’ prisons. Personally, I credit my union for the fact that I have an alternative work schedule that allows me to work 9.5 hour days in exchange for having every other Friday off. Similarly, pressure from my union and others like it motivated the federal government to allow and encourage telework. While my husband’s job is radically different – hourly in a service position – he too benefits from being part of a union. In particular, he has a higher pay rate than other people in similar positions because his employer is unionized. We have both benefited heartily from organized labor, both historically and in our everyday lives.
However, this personal experience has made me more aware of organized labor’s issues. Despite their huge advances, unions rarely remind people of their accomplishments. Labor Day is just another day off, when unions need to seize this day – and many others – to highlight the changes that wouldn’t have happened without them. As a result, we lose perspective on both labor’s historical and current importance. In many anti-union efforts like those in Wisconsin, organized labor loses the debate because people think that there are no more labor issues for us to deal with. Some people even claim that capitalism fixed the problems that existed before! (Just like we need to get rid of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because our air and water is so much cleaner than it was in the 1970s.)
While they need to trumpet their accomplishments, unions also need to move beyond them or remain stuck in the past to their detriment. So much of the language from and around organized labor conflicts with or ignores the needs of younger workers. All of the local advertisements encouraging people to support the federal employees’ union emphasize that “Your retirement could be at risk!” Most of the mailings my husband receives from his union are about how they are preserving his pension. I know this is essential for the federal workers near retirement age, but doesn’t resonate with me at all. In fact, I’ve always assumed I wouldn’t have a pension. This messaging is even less relevant for my husband, who is in a profession where being in a position for more than a year is a long time.
Compounding the problem is the general lack of attention unions give other issues of interest. While my union has enabled me to have increased flexibility, it doesn’t seem to be making any progress on paid family leave. The U.S. federal government gives the exact same amount of paid family leave as fast-food places – exactly zero. The only specific family leave available is the unpaid leave legally required by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires all employers offer 12 workweeks of leave for birth, adoption, or care of an immediate family member with a serious health condition. (Notably, this does not include taking leave for care of a sick sibling, other relative, or friend, which discriminates against people without children.) To get paid for this time off, you have to take a combination of sick and annual leave. Because few people – especially those who have been at their job for a short period of time – have enough sick or annual leave built up when an emergency arrives, they become stuck in a horrible Catch-22. My husband’s union, which is in a field with a lot of single males, is even worse. When he asked his union representative about paternity leave, the representative answered, “Uh, three days? You aren’t the one having the baby.” The representative eventually gave him the information about the FLMA, but that initial reaction speaks volumes about the attention paid to this particular issue. While frequently framed as a “women’s issue,” lack of paid family leave seriously restricts the opportunities available to everyone. When men don’t have the opportunity to stay home, women frequently become default caregivers for children and/or elderly relatives, regardless of what either party wants or suits them best.
Similarly, unions don’t seem to be putting a lot of political capital towards pushing for equality on other gender-disparity issues, like equal pay for equal work. Even though women are 47% of the workforce, women’s and civil rights groups like the ACLU seem much more invested in improving conditions for women than unions seem to be. (This is based on a fairly fast Google search, but on the other hand, it’s never an issue brought up in communications from either of our unions.)
Now, much of this sounds like complaining that unions aren’t serving relatively privileged people, whether white or blue collar. But I would also like to see unions go beyond the needs of their members. From my experience, they often ignore the larger context of non-unionized workers or those outside of their area of interest. While some overarching groups like the AFL-CIO address immigration issues and there are unions specific to particularly exploitative areas like farm work, I never hear these issues raised within my union or my husband’s. It’s telling that Occupy, the biggest, most prominent income inequality movement in years, largely ignored and was ignored by unions. While I understand that they want to serve their current members, it would be refreshing to see unions connect their members’ issues to the larger fight for social justice. If unions hadn’t banded together in the 1800s, we’d still have the trade guild system and lack the sweeping changes that the labor movement as a whole was able to accomplish.
Unions seem to be a dying breed in the U.S., but it doesn’t need to be that way. Regaining our sense of solidarity is essential to solving a lot of America’s major issues, from the power corporations hold over government and their workers, to closing the expanding economic gap. We need organized labor. Because when workers come together and stop the machine damaging society from the inside-out, we all benefit.