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Watching uproar over Wisconsin protests, it’s time to remember how unions make our lives better

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Sally Kohn
March 15, 2011

If you’re cheering on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to destroy both democracy and working families by ramming through anti-union legislation backed by big business, shame on you! I’m sick of unions being vilified by conservative commentators and voters alike who, in fact, have very directly and tangibly benefited from unionization.


In the 1920s, before the peak of the union movement, income inequality and wealth distribution in America reached dangerous proportions. Incomes for the nation as a whole were barely keeping pace with inflation while incomes for the top 1 percent of Americans skyrocketed up 75 percent. Unions, along with a host of New Deal-era accomplishments, helped drastically turn this tide.


In 1955, when the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) was formed, Republican President Eisenhower praised the newly combined labor federation and unions in general for achieving economic prosperity for all.


It was widely accepted that after an era in which the robber barons recklessly abused workers in order to extract maximum wealth, unions were the way working class Americans could fight back together for rights, benefits and fair wages.


Which is why big business—and big business-backed politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—have worked so hard to destroy unions ever since. Do you really think big business gives a damn about “our economy” or “your jobs”? Come on. They care about their bottom line. That’s what businesses do. Unions care about workers.


Unions raise the wages of workers by roughly 20 percent and raise total compensation, including both wage and benefits after union dues are deducted, by 28 percent. The effect is even greater for low- and middle-wage workers and those without a college degree.


Unionized workers are significantly more likely than non-union workers to get paid leave, employer-provided health insurance and employer-provided pension plans (in fact, up to 54 percent more likely). And unionized workers receive 26 percent more vacation time and 14 percent more paid leave.


What’s not to like about that?


But here’s the kicker: Even if you’re not in a union, unions help you. There’s an old bumper sticker that reads, “Like your weekend? Thank a union!” A bigger bumper sticker might read, “Like your weekend, your 40-hour work week, your workers compensation program, your employee benefits, your minimum wage, your safety standards on the job? Thank a union.”


But that’s not all.


Unions set a standard that even non-unionized workplaces have to follow. For example, a high school graduate who works in a field that is only 25 percent unionized earns 5 percent more than similar workers in less unionized industries. Wouldn’t you take a 5 percent raise right now?


And no, workers who get good salaries and benefits aren’t taking money out of your pocket. They’re taking it from CEO salaries and bonuses. The top five big banks on Wall Street set aside $89.54 billion for bonuses last year—only a 2.8 percent decline from the previous year, even though profits were down 4 percent. In other words, even with lower profits, big business across the country can afford to pay executives a small fortune. They can easily afford to pay decent wage and benefits to average workers.


The same is true for public-sector employees. States across the country have been slashing wages and benefits for teachers and other public servants in order to give obscene tax breaks to big business and the super-rich. Note that in Wisconsin, 60 percent of corporations making more than $1 million per year in revenues pay zero taxes. Zero.


Anti-union oligarchs literally want to take money from working people and put it in the pockets of the super-rich. If you’re against that, find a union and join it.


For the record, unions primarily target large industries and employers so the “this hurts small business” argument is nothing but a distraction. Plus, if a small business is paying such abysmal wages that the unionization of the industry pushes the small business to also raise pay, good—they shouldn’t have been so low in the first place.


And also for the record, many of the talking heads who rail against unions are, in fact, union members. Most every television and radio show host, for instance, belongs to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. They might resent having to be in structures to which they’re so ideologically opposed, but the fact is that their good wages and benefits and working conditions were won and are preserved by their union.


And when these same talking heads suggest that we don’t need unions to level the economic playing field, that plenty of poor people grow up to be rich, most of the examples they cite are union members, too.


Baseball players who rose from the ghetto to the major league? It wasn’t until they unionized that baseball players got rich. Actors? Unionized, including recent Oscar winner actress Natalie Portman who thanked the Screen Actors Guild union for making sure she got an education and was protected as a child actor.


Anti-union policies hurt all workers. The average worker in a so-called “Right-to-Work” state that hinders unionization makes $5,538 per year less than workers in free bargaining states. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workplace death rates are 52.9 percent higher in “Right-to-Work” states than free bargaining states. “Right-to-Work” states have higher rates of poverty, higher infant mortality rates and lower percentages of residents with health insurance.


This is simple. The vast majority of Americans think it’s wrong that 400 obscenely rich people hold more wealth and power than the assets of 155 million ordinary Americans combined. Why? Because it is wrong.


Such monstrous inequality and lack of opportunity for ordinary Americans is not a sign that capitalism is broken but a sign that our economy and politics have been rigged to work for the very few at the top. And since the same few rich people and big businesses at the top make most of the political contributions in our country, politicians are woefully skittish to challenge their greed.


And that’s why the final reason to thank a union, the organized voice—and yes, political money, too—large enough to stand up to the otherwise-unchecked disastrous power of big businesses that care nothing about you or our economy and care only about their profit. That’s not what America is about.


That’s why we let people vote to join unions, to stand up together for working Americans and to fulfill the vision of freedom and equality for which our nation was founded.—Just like we let people vote anti-democratic, anti-working families politicians out of office.


Sally Kohn is a community organizer and political commentator. She is the Founder and Chief Education Officer of the Movement Vision Lab.

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