The AFL-CIO’s just concluded quadrennial convention was an honest conversation about the labor movement’s future. It included robust debate on a variety of issues, but perhaps most importantly, union leaders and activists pledged to seek common bond with all working people whether they belong to a union or not.
Amidst all of the important work and hours of discussion on everything from the anemic economy, the hollowing out of collective bargaining rights, the decline in unionization and perverse trade policies that are ruining industries and careers, a decision was made to reach beyond our own ranks and enlist the power of non-union workers who are all fighting for the same thing — middle-class jobs with fair pay, reliable health care and retirement security. That is the vision and strength behind Working America, which is mobilizing working people who are aching for representation in a cruel economy.
This is a no-brainer. Unions now represent less than one in 10 workers in the private sector and overall about 13 percent of all employees in the private and public sectors combined. This means that at a time when the economy isn’t producing enough good jobs, most people are on their own without the force of collective bargaining behind them. Of course, some people, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, think the economy can somehow grow with minimum wage jobs that doom too many families to poverty. Meanwhile, the middle class is vanishing, inequality is soaring and wages are stagnant — mostly because workers don’t have unions to stand up for them. How did this happen, you ask? Check out what Economic Policy Institute has found:
– Wages are about 14 percent higher among unionized workers – the gap widens when you add in health care and pension benefits.
– Unionized workers are about 29 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 54 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions.
– While union members have an earnings and health care advantage, the share of Americans in the work force represented by unions has been reduced by half since the early 1970s.
– The decline of unionization explains about three-fourths of the wage gap for men between white collar and blue collar jobs, and more than a fifth of the wage gap in those jobs for women.
Note to politicians: you might want to start talking about (not just in union halls) the obvious link between the collapse of the middle class and the declining numbers of union members in America.
I am inspired by some of the work being done by new allies in the fight. For example, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Executive Director of the National Taxi Workers Alliance, Bhairavi Desai, who is the first representative from a non-traditional labor organization elected to the AFL-CIO Executive Council. This organization is focused on giving voice to taxi drivers in America who have been the victim of cronyism among taxi owners who routinely abuse independent contractor laws (with the help of too many local politicians, by the way) as a deliberate strategy to deny these workers the power of collective bargaining. The result: compensation rates are ridiculously low and any kind of benefits are non-existent.
This new alliance with taxi workers joins our other efforts to build grassroots capacity and power such as the new allies we have enlisted to boost transportation manufacturing jobs in America and to promote and expand public transportation. We have only just begun, but we are on our way to expanding this movement and holding the people we help to elect accountable for their actions and inactions.
This strategy to build larger and more powerful coalitions will be linked with a new way of doing business in our communities and with politicians. Working people starve for a powerful voice on the job and in our politics. They need a movement that will help workers who are falling behind claw their way back into the middle class. We will be focused in the months ahead on giving these workers in the transportation sector that voice.