If you're someone who believes that unions are not as important as they once were, it's time to reconsider. It's not just a coincidence that the drop in union membership over the last 50 years corresponds directly with a decline in the middle class' share of national income.
Whether you are a union member or not, this should be worrisome. Besides stagnant wages for most working people, the trend of rising income inequality reduces educational opportunity, stifles upward mobility, and distorts the power dynamics of our society. In many ways, unions remain one of the last lines of defense for our middle class way of life.
So, why is it that people are so quick to write off unions?
American labor unions trace their origins back to the 19th century, when working people confronted major challenges, including inhumane working conditions, starvation wages, child labor, long hours, and no rights to organize. These issues might seem like things of the past, but manifest themselves in many ways to this day.
Workers have the right to organize, but they are unjustly intimidated or fired for trying to form unions. Destructive right-to-work (for less) laws are being passed around the country, threatening the right of labor unions to even exist. While child labor has been banned, the fact that parents have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet is certainly detrimental to childhood development. Relative to the early days of unions, workers today earn more money and work fewer hours, yet remain underpaid and overworked or are unable to find a job.
This isn't to say that there has been no progress. Our forebears made possible many of the reforms we enjoy today, but to conclude that unions have outlasted their usefulness is foolish. In fact, the challenges we face today may even be more daunting than those of the past.
Workers had more bargaining power when jobs couldn't just be shipped overseas or automated. In the global economy, workers have become tools used to maximize corporate profits. Unions are fighting on more fronts than ever before with fewer members, scant resources, and shallow political alliances in an environment of mixed public opinion.
Whether it's understood or not, unions fight for all workers. Unions believe in strengthening the American consumer, building up our national infrastructure, and ensuring equal pay for equal work. In terms of creating and safeguarding American jobs, there are few organizations as committed to this goal as unions.
Broken trade rules have created a zero-sum game in which corporations and major shareholders have reaped fortunes at the expense of millions of American workers. Rather than a system that compromises labor and environmental standards, unions believe in fair trade and a level playing field that gives all workers an opportunity to succeed.
Despite differences of opinion, unions are not the enemy of business. In fact, there are few stakeholders who are more vested in the long-term success of a company than the workers themselves; their jobs and livelihoods literally depend on it. High-level executives enjoy the protection of their golden parachutes, and stock speculators care less about the company and more about short-term capital gains. Workers have time and again demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice for the sake of business, but the sacrifices today are often fueled by greed and a flawed corporate mentality.
In order to hit quarterly numbers, more and more companies are engineering their profits by exploiting tax loopholes, buying back billions in stock, outsourcing, and cutting labor costs in any way they can. So many quintessential American companies, which were built on the strength of our domestic workforce and consumers, have returned the favor by deciding to cut and run. Carrier, a unit of United Technologies, announced plans to lay off 1,400 workers in Indiana and move those jobs to Mexico. Nabisco, founded in East Hanover, is owned by the global food giant, Mondelez, which announced it would move 600 jobs from Chicago to Mexico. Atlantic City will lose another 3,000 jobs following the closure of the Trump Taj Mahal, which is owned by billionaire Carl Icahn.
Unlike large businesses, unions have no shareholders, no billionaire CEOs, and no tax havens overseas. Unions have members and their families and the communities where they live and work every day. Unions train workers to perfect their craft and maintain the highest safety standards. Unions advocate for safe staffing in our hospitals, fight for quality affordable education, and negotiate terms to enhance the employer/employee relationship. Unions fight for higher wages, fairness, and economic opportunity.
The principle of checks and balances has proven vital to our progress as a nation, and this idea can also be applied to our economy. With a system of economic checks and balances, power could be shared equally among government, business, and labor. For decades, unions counterbalanced the power of business and advocated for responsible government policies, but those days are fading fast.
Unless this balance of power is regained, the question we must ask ourselves is this: Are we ready for a country in which business interests and our government representatives run the whole show? If you respond, "This is how things are now," you've just made the case for why we need strong unions.
We celebrate Labor Day not just to reflect on labor's past achievements, but to remind ourselves how important the voices and contributions of working people remain to this nation. We must never forget that in our solidarity is our strength.
Charles Wowkanech is president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO