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The Decline of Labor Unions Is a Threat to America’s Middle Class

Charlie Williams writes that the middle class in America benefits from the workplace improvements won by labor unions.

During the past few years, much scorn has been heaped upon organized labor as the main cause of our budget woes, especially from Republican governors and legislators in the Midwest and Southern states. Their scorn has caused shrinkage of union membership in those states and, as a result, shrinkage of middle-class jobs nationwide.

America’s middle class is also shrinking and the decline in the numbers of both should be of great concern to all Americans. Few may realize it, but America’s middle class is tied to the growth and strength of labor unions in ways most of us never think about. In an article appearing in the April 4 edition of Center for American Progress, we learn that over the past 40-plus years, the aggregated share of middle-class income earners has declined at about the same rate as the decline in union membership roles.

Middle-class workers and their families should be thankful to unions for the many benefits they receive through organized labor’s muscle, both at the bargaining table and victories won in the halls of Congress, state capitols and local governments. Working in Congress and state capitols around the nation, labor has led the way in promoting programs that benefit all middle-class workers and the poor.

Labor victories that benefit all workers and their families are easily identified in both union and non-union households. They include safer workplaces through the Occupation Safety and Health Act, pension protection through the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, paid holidays, paid sick days and paid vacations.

Unions fought for and won national and state minimum-wage laws and worker-compensation laws that protect workers when they are injured on the job. Unions also fought for and won unemployment compensation laws that protect workers who lose their job through no fault of their own.

Labor led the fight for the enactment of Social Security and Medicare, as well as the new Affordable Health Care Act, which is on its way to becoming a major part of the answer to America’s health-care woes. That is especially true for the many millions of individuals and families that have no insurance protection today.

These acts were signed into law by both Democrats and Republican presidents and state governors. Today we take most of these benefits and protections for granted, but without labor’s help it is doubtful these programs would ever have been enacted into law.

Union strength and growth is good for our nation’s economy, according to an article by Dave Kansas in the Sept. 5, 2010, edition of The Wall Street Journal. Kansas wrote that “Heavily unionized countries are outperforming everyone else." If union strength is on the decline, all of America’s workers are at a disadvantage for good wages and benefits.

Heavily unionized countries that are outperforming us are found among the 30 industrialized nations that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which the United States is a part of. The best of the countries in economic well-being are Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Sweden and Finland have union membership that totals nearly 70 percent of the countries' populations.

In addition, Germany, another of the OECD countries, is also heavily unionized and showing steady GDP growth and riding high with exports of its manufactured products.

A wise move for all middle-class workers would be to take a close look at supporting union growth no matter your political beliefs. Unions work for creating jobs and consistently oppose trade bills such as NAFTA that have a track record of destroying millions of American jobs.

Trade bills in general too often favor and encourage businesses to close their operations here and relocate to another country that has much lower wages and benefits and weak laws protecting workers. They then send their products back here to sell, enticing other businesses to relocate as well. Trade bills like NAFTA, while destroying millions of well-paying jobs in America, have helped bring about the loss of our industrial might.

Though labor has suffered greatly because of the shrinking of its membership roles, it remains a strong voice for all workers. Labor learned long ago of the need to develop an effective political action network within its membership ranks. That network today plays a significant role in promoting and passing legislation that benefits all workers.

That also includes workers who have no union representation who benefit when their employer takes notice of union-won wages and benefits at the bargaining table. They occasionally pass a portion of these improvements on to their workers to ward off possible union-organizing efforts in their place of business and to retain their best and brightest employees.

Today, workers of all stripes are forced to contend with record-high unemployment figures in their desperate search for re-employment. Labor has rightly insisted Congress provide much more stimulus money for rebuilding our fast-deteriorating infrastructure. In city after city, from coast to coast, our roads, bridges, transportation and utilities are in desperate need of repair.

Refurbishing and updating our infrastructure and transportation system will help our country meet today's and tomorrow’s economic challenges, both here and abroad, while providing millions of well-paying jobs helping to rebuild our nation's middle class. Investing our tax dollars in creating American jobs is a proven tool designed to rebuild our middle class.

Help is not likely to come from big banks, nor from big businesses that currently sit on record profits with little to no concern or incentive to help rebuild America’s middle class. Our national and state leaders pushed and persuaded by We the People must insist on our government investing in serious job creation in order to re-prime the pump of our economy.

Organized labor will continue to play a large role in the promotion and creation of well-paying jobs that benefit all workers. Middle-class America will be wise to join organized labor in that effort.

—Charlie Williams

tammyasbury August 05, 2011 at 09:34 AM
The "Penny Health" is quite popular in California and New York. For example it offers the low income health plan. Also offers health insurance for individual with pre-exisiting conditions.
Joe Reilly August 06, 2011 at 02:53 AM
This Active Retired Union Man made some outstanding remarks he hit the nail on the head I only wish we had more Active Union Leaders like him. A 56 year member of the I.A.M. Union, Joe Reilly ,Santee, Ca. 92071
vivian blackstone August 06, 2011 at 10:08 PM
As an aging member of the middle class, and having grown up with labor unions, i feel the honest union represents a block of power no single individual should be without. I also feel fortunate and grateful that i am able to semi-retire and have the many benefits that were hard-won by brave individuals before me.i try to help now no matter how old i become to encourage younger people to have a sense of responsibility for one another. There is power in numbers, and the one's voice can be heard. I also believe we all need to be ever vigilant, as freedom has a price and we all need to be alert.I thank Mr. Williams for reminding of of who helped the middle class become and be where we are. Vivian Blackstone, a self employed graphic designer
Mike August 07, 2011 at 11:26 PM
All of the patriotic vets from WW2 were depression era children and after seeing the world and saving us from tyranny returned to America and "UNIONIZED" almost the entire American workforce. They built us a American infrastructure second to none in the world. As a 71 year old retiree and a Vet. I'm ashamed at how the greedy corporate military industrial complex is destroying our nation for profit that these Vets gave us ! Remember IKE and Douglas MacArthur warned us ! Could someone please explain to me how school teachers and public employees became responsible for wall street insider trading and thievery in cahoots with the banks that has caused this economic collapse in our great nation !
Tony Padilla August 08, 2011 at 10:55 PM
Charlie this is a great article on the history of our labor movement. More General Education should continue about how the union was built and the struggles of the labor movement. The 8 hour work day and the weekend as we know it was not accidental but took hard unoin organizing work to accomplish. Let continue to educate both union and non-union workers and the public about organize labor unions. Tony

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