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Pro: Without labor unions, who speaks for the worker?

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John Sweeney & James Leaman
April 6, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writers are addressing the question, Do Americans today still need labor unions?

Let’s just put the skunk on the table. America’s economy is in real trouble. We didn’t get into this economic crisis overnight. We need real long-term solutions to our deep-rooted economic problems—not the status quo and a $300 BandAid.


More than ever, we’re living our daily lives in an economy that puts corporate profits over real people. You can see it in our lopsided trade policies, the outrageous expense of health care, mounting personal debt, and in our crumbling bridges, roads and schools. Thanks to Bushonomics, this is the America the next president will inherit.


How did we get to this point? Before the 1970s, our economy was growing strong, which meant rising wages for the vast majority of America’s workers.


More money in our pockets meant more spending capacity—and so we spent. That spending encouraged companies to invest more, and a cycle of prosperity was born.


It was good while it lasted, but for the last three decades workers’ productivity has continued to go up, up and away—while wages have stagnated. There are many reasons, including the deregulation of the airline, telecommunications and trucking industries, which drove wages down for those workers. Unfair international trade policies (such as NAFTA) also played a significant role, providing incentives to send jobs overseas.


But that’s not the whole story. Another key reason workers aren’t seeing wages that match their productivity is the sustained attack against workers’ freedom to form unions to bargain for better deals.


The Employee Free Choice Act is a piece of national legislation that would level the playing field for America’s workers—mitigating corporate greed and repairing the broken labor-law system that has stripped away the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.


Joining a union has become far more difficult than it should be. Employers routinely harass, coerce and fire people who try to form unions. Studies show that a quarter of all employers illegally fire workers for supporting a union, and union activists stand a one-in-five chance of getting fired during organizing campaigns.


More than 30,000 workers were discriminated against by their employer while trying to form a union in 2005. And a whopping 75 percent of employers get themselves a team of expensive hired guns to teach them how to prevent their workers from organizing a union.


About 60 million of America’s working men and women say they would join a union today if they could. And it’s no surprise. A union card is every worker’s ticket into the middle class.


Union members earn 30 percent more than workers who don’t have a union—that’s $200 a week, or more than $10,000 per year. Union members are also more likely to have health care and pension benefits.


Without the counterbalance of worker power in the economy, the relationship between wages and productivity unravels. Wages stagnate while living expenses rise. When that happens, workers become over-reliant on borrowing in order to make ends meet or get ahead. That’s why the average American household owes $8,000 of their future income to a credit card company—up from $3,000 in 1990. And that’s why Americans are so vulnerable to predatory lending in the housing industry.


But now, debt-driven consumer spending has reached its limit. Some of us are losing our homes because we can’t afford to pay higher interest rates on our mortgages. The rest of us are tightening our belts because we no longer have equity in our homes against which we can borrow. In our consumption-based economy, when people stop spending, we’re in real trouble.


Demand goes down, the values of our homes go down, and it’s the average American left holding the IOU.


The economy is in real trouble, and we all know it. The question is whether we keep marching to the beat of the same old tired drummer, or whether we decide it’s time to change our tune.


John Sweeney is president of the AFL-CIO, and James Leaman is president of the Virginia AFL-CIO. They wrote this for the Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star.

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