Why I Love Unions

Some of the ATT trucks around town have a sticker I’ve always loved: If you like a 40 hour work week, thank a union member.
Publish date:
February 10, 2012
class war, fair pay, unions, workers

Listening to NPR the other day1, I was somewhat disheartened to hear about a new ad campaign from the AFL-CIO essentially rebranding unions to “make them accessible for young people.”

I wondered why it was that we need to make unions accessible at all, because unions are awesome and everyone should know that already, but then I remembered that we don’t actually live in fantasyland and not everyone has a unicorn that poops fair-trade chocolate nuggets in their front yards.

A lot of young ‘uns are deeply suspicious of unions because they’ve been exposed to a lot of messaging about the evils of unions, and don’t actually know what unions can do for them.

So yeah, maybe unions do need to be better with branding and outreach, although it’s an uphill battle to slog through all the anti-union propaganda2 backed by multibillion dollar companies that can keep pumping out union-hatin’ advertisements. Hence this whole “work is what connects us” campaign to get people thinking about labor and work environments without using the dreaded U word.

Unions are awesome!

Union members are working in solidarity with Occupy folks, and vice versa, which seems like a good strategy for both sides, because young people are excited about Occupy. The movement has been fascinating to watch, as growing numbers of people realize the real economic issues at stake and where the United States is headed, as a country. What some people don’t seem to be as aware of is that unions have been advocating and fighting on these topics for a long time; they’re glad you’re joining the party, but they’d like a little support now.

Building on the momentum from the Occupy movement, unions are trying to attract more members, as well as more public support. There have been a couple of important recent union actions recently including an ongoing port dispute in Seattle, demonstrations against anti-unions laws, relevations of abusive working conditions at Sotheby's and protests from teachers’ unions across the country over education “reforms” and dramatic cuts to school spending. These have big implications not just for the unions involved but for workers in general, and for the industries they serve.

Teachers, for example, are pretty critical. I think we can all agree that teachers are a good thing and that they should be paid well and provided with safe working environments. Teachers are also likely to know what’s up when it comes to education reforms and approaches that will actually work on the ground to improve the quality of education. Many teachers seem to agree that slashing budgets, cutting pensions and closing schools is actually not an effective way to address the significant shortcomings of the education system, and their unions are backing them on this one.

Making the workplace better for everyone

Some of the ATT trucks around town have a sticker I’ve always loved: "If you like a 40 hour work week, thank a union member." The labor movement in the United States is what pushed for radical shifts at the turn of the century that completely changed the working landscape. One reason sweatshops, mandatory overtime and horrific workplace abuses are not as widespread as they could be is because of unions. One reason the early roots of the women’s movement were so successful is because of unions; the garment workers’ unions in New York City in particular were a huge force for women’s suffrage, not just women in the workplace. Striking garment workers also attracted popular attention and made fair pay and safe working conditions a popular cause, attracting support from wealthy women’s rights advocates.

And we still need radical changes in the workplace. There are huge racialized and gendered wage disparities, in addition to totally skewed representation in leading positions, for example. Low-income workers have shrinking protections, and that goes even more so for undocumented workers in sweat shops, domestic employment and agricultural settings; unionizing those workers is one way to fight those injustices. We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to safe, healthy, ethical work environments in this country and unions are well aware of it.

There’s a popular social myth that unions are bad and evil and want to ban puppies forever and ever. More seriously, though, some people seem to think unions drive up operating costs, take fees without offering anything in return and set untenable restrictions on workplace activities.

I’ve had workers inform me that they’re “thankful” unionizing attempts failed, without being aware that their parent companies invested millions in unionbusting campaigns to ensure that workers would vote against a proposed union. If a company’s willing to spend that much, you’ve got to pause and ask yourself why. For that matter, if a company is willing to threaten bankruptcy, as American Airlines recently did, over requests from the union, you’ve got to wonder who the bully is here -- the union, or the company dangling the threat of mass unemployment over employees.

What unions actually do

Unions fight hard every day for their members and the people who work alongside them to make sure they are paid fairly and reasonably, provided with safety measures on the job, and offered opportunities. Those fees go to negotiations that make a significant difference for workers, and when a union is forced to call for a strike, those same fees can support workers on the picket line. Union membership has tremendous advantages, and this I know from experience as a former SEIU member and current member of the Freelancer’s Union.

It makes me so sad to see many people continuing to believe that unions are a problem when they are, in fact, part of the solution. People who are concerned about class and inequality in the US should definitely be supporting the work of unions and union companies; you don’t have to be a member to be a supporter!

Buy union-made, if you can. Don’t cross picket lines. Register complaints when companies use abusive tactics to shut down union negotiations. Take advantage of free tools provided by numerous unions for workers to educate themselves about their rights. Support the work of groups like the Retail Action Project, who are fighting for better working conditions, wages and employee protections that benefit us all. For that matter, get on board with worker organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who often provide specific action items for members of the public concerned about working conditions.Because we're all in this together, and better protections for workers equal better life for everyone; whether you're a patient getting treated in a hospital with union nurses, or a driver getting ready to hop behind the wheel of a union-made car.

1. I only listen for Nina Totenberg’s Supreme Court reporting, okay! Sheesh, don’t look at me that way. Return

2. Uh, in case it’s not blatantly obvious from everything I write, I am a raging socialist. Return