Unions Are One Answer To Making The Economy Work For The 99 Percent

Dave Johnson

A Friday panel at Netroots Nation in Phoenix, “Unions as the Answer to the Defining Issue of our Time,” made the point that empowering unions is about more than just the workers having a path to the middle class; it is about strengthening the entire economy.

The panel was moderated by Seema Nanda, deputy chief of staff to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. On the panel were Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; Frank Piccioli, President of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2960 with the City of Phoenix and Arizona EMS Workers United; Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, and Naomi Walker, who serves as an assistant to the president of AFSCME.

The panel’s description set the stage:

It’s no accident that corporate-backed politicians have been on the attack against unions. They know what we have known for a long time: joining a union is one of the best ways to un-rig the system and level the playing field for all workers. After decades of these attacks, wages are dropping, inequality is rising – and women, communities of color, and the millennial generation still face especially steep hurdles in today’s economy. The system is rigged. This panel will explore what the labor movement is doing to reverse these trends and what challenges lie ahead. There’s no doubt that strong unions are a key part of the solution to income inequality, the only question is how workers will organize a winning movement in the face of corporate-funded attacks.

Neera Tanden described how all income gains in the economy have been going to the top. One third of the stagnation and decline in wages in men is due to the decline of unions – down to 11 percent of the total workforce and less than 7 percent of the private-sector workforce. This is a challenge for the economy writ large, a challenge for families, people struggling with stagnant wages and rising costs. Other countries have figured this out. Unionization rates of up to 40 percent in countries like Canada and Australia allow people to have wage gains. In hard times, not just workers bear all the risk.

Grijalva said that with the decline of unions comes a decline in income, wages, working conditions and the overall political landscape. We see rising income inequality, wage disparity, and a continuing widening of that disparity. The decline is not the result of attrition; it has been a deliberate, long-run effort by corporate America and in some instances government to strip away the ability of unions to organize. As they began to strip it away, power shifted to ownership, to corporate America. Now we see the effect.

The Progressive Caucus and allies in the labor movement have begun to draw symbolic but important lines around raising wages and the push for executive orders to stop wage theft and encourage collective bargaining.

But the central thing, these symbolic victories set a tone, then when workers get opportunity, gains are made. There is work in the federal area with executive orders, but passing legislation in Congress now that is pro-union is near to impossible.

Corporations should be rewarded for how they pay employees, keep jobs in the nation, don’t send profits overseas. We need a corporate responsibility agenda.

Naomi Walker said that we need unions in order to solve structural problems in our economy. The people who benefit from rigged systems, the corporations, are fighting unions because labor unions provide a counterbalance. That’s why they are trying so hard to eliminate unions and collective bargaining. The public sector has been able to maintain a decent level of representation, so that’s why they are going after public sector workers and unions.

Frank Piccioli represents Phoenix city employees. We need unions to protect the middle class, he said, so workers who sacrifice, work very head, can share gains. And these gains extend to their families.

When Piccioli was a kid, his father was a New York City firefighter. One day, his father was driving on a bridge when he saw a car on fire. He got out of his car and pulled two people out of the burning vehicle. When he went to get the third, the car exploded and he was injured. The city tried to deny him benefits because he was off duty and not wearing his protective gear. The only venue through which he could appeal that decision was through the union. Everyone who works hard deserves basic benefits, to know they are protected.

Naomi Walker said that unions provided a path to the middle class for women and people of color. The current right-wing trashing of government is code for women and people of color filling government jobs and clients for services government workers provide. People of color workers and women lost wages at higher rates after recession as result of these right-wing attacks.

Tanden pointed out that the clearest thing we can do for the economy is strengthen unions, give people power to bargain for higher wages. Unions are the way in which workers have been able to address the things that are driving wages down.

Our economy is 70 percent consumption. When unions are weakened, wages lag, consumption drags, so growth drags. Unions do not kill jobs; they create jobs and drive the economy.

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