|ONLINE VERSION||MAY 2001|
Like any national organization with a broad agenda and true commitment to its members, the labor movement has its ups and downs.
Riding on this roller coaster means that we are sometimes criticized simply because we use our voice to strongly defend issues concerning working Americans. And, sometimes, like when we win a hard fought battle on Capitol Hill to protect sacred worker rights, we feel the same adrenaline rush that overcame us as children riding on a real roller coaster.
All too often we only hear about the "downs" in our ongoing journey to improve the quality of life of working families. Let's just look at the past few months.
We have seen countless news accounts about the "weakening of organized labor" as the Bush Administration seeks retribution for our support of Al Gore. Irresponsible television network coverage and newspaper stories have warned about looming airline service disruptions caused by worker demands at the bargaining table and threatened strikes - never mind the demands and tactics of airline management. And, even within the AFL-CIO house of labor, we have just witnessed the disaffiliation of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, a story that others are exploiting to suggest dissension in our house.
Our nation seems overly obsessed with exploring the negative. Or, perhaps, it is true that negative stories sell more newspapers and produce higher TV ratings. Whatever the reason, we must all take a moment to stop and look at the positive. And, as union members, this means that we must remind ourselves of the difference that unions make in the lives of working families - both on the job and in our communities.
A society that is driven by the motivation of "what have you done for me lately," often loses sight of a basic question that should be at the heart of any truly relevant organization - what would life be like if strong democratic unions didn't exist. If we asked that of ourselves as union members, the answer would be pretty bleak. Without unions, millions of working Americans - union members and non-union members alike - would be far worse off then they are today. No other institution would fight for fair trade, worker safety, the minimum wage, collective bargaining rights, health care and a strong Medicare and Railroad Retirement program. In fact, in today's cruel economy, a worker's union card may be the only symbol of job security left in the workplace.
We often forget that some of the fundamental tenets of our lives as working Americans such as pensions, sick leave, paid vacations, injury compensation, safe workplaces and even the eight hour work day are all the result of the hard work of a dedicated union movement. We enjoy enhanced wages and benefits, have greater job security and are better trained and more productive because we are union members and we have a strong labor movement behind us under the AFL-CIO banner.
The facts speak for themselves. Unions truly raise wages and our standard of living through the collective bargaining process. Recent data show that unionized workers earn about 35 percent more in total compensation than nonunion workers. Among blue collar workers, the "union premium" approaches 50 percent in pay and, in insurance and benefits, it is even larger: union blue collar workers earn 158 percent and 362 percent more in health and pensions than do their nonunion counterparts.
Rail workers need to look no further than to shortline railroads where those employees, especially the unorganized, earn far less than they would if they worked for a major unionized rail carrier. And collective bargaining is a particularly effective vehicle for workers who face the most discrimination and difficulty in the labor market - women and minorities. According to the AFL-CIO, the union wage advantage was 38 percent for women workers, 42 percent for African American workers and 52 percent for Latino workers.
Don't ask the labor movement if these facts are true - ask corporate special interests that validate our hard work everyday as they spend enormous resources trying to silence or weaken us. I've always believed that the best way for businesses, big and small, to weaken the labor movement is to become responsible employers.
And while those workers with a union voice are better off because they carry a union card, the public is also beginning to recognize that unions matter and are a positive force in the workplace and for the economy. According to research conducted by the national polling firm, Peter D. Hart Research Associates:
More than two-thirds of Americans felt positive or neutral towards unions, with negative attitudes toward unions dropping 11 points in the six-year period from 1993 to 1999.
More Americans would vote for a union today than 15 years ago. When Americans who aren't union members were asked if they would vote for a union at their workplace, 43 percent said they would definitely or probably vote for a union. This percentage has increased by nearly half over the past 15 years. And the percentage who said they would vote against a union dropped dramatically.
Among young adults ages 18 - 34, positive attitudes toward unions outpace negative attitudes two to one. With negative attitudes lower among young adults than among all adults, this is clearly an encouraging sign for union membership in the future.
A majority of workers think that employees who have a union are better off than those who don't. Fifty two percent of those surveyed said that workers are better off if they have a union - and only 20 percent said they are worse off.
A majority of those polled thought it would be good for the country if more workers had union representation. Fifty two percent of respondents said that an increase in union membership would be good for the nation; only 22 percent said it would be bad.
Yes, the labor movement does experience its "ups and downs." That's to be expected. The challenge is to keep focused on the "ups" - the reasons why unions matter. It's a challenge we all need to face head on. Because strong unions mean a more prosperous economy and a strong America.