This is an excellent opinion piece by Democratic strategist Donna Brazile on what exactly labor unions have done – and continue to do for everyday Americans, including those who aren’t members of labor unions.
What have unions done for us lately? Other than give us Labor Day, and a three-day weekend to start football season.
The answers may surprise you.
Unions have long been part of our nation’s history, fighting for better pay, safer working conditions, health care and retirement benefits, education and civic participation. Unions have brought diverse voices together, and their struggles have elevated the working conditions, the standard of living and the recognition of not just their members, but of all who labor.
Unions played a major role in ending the sweatshops and child labor so common at the beginning of the 20th century. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, or ILGWU, was one of the first unions to have a primarily female membership. And in the aftermath of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which more than 100 mostly young immigrant women were killed, the ILGWU was at the forefront of reforming working conditions and pushing for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws.
Unions aren’t a “thing of the past.” They’re a vital part of our social fabric and economic future. Did you know, for example, that unions run the largest career training program outside the military? Union apprenticeship programs generally partner with employers or industries to provide the kind of training that hard-wires excellence into workers and places them in good jobs that can support families. That’s worth a lot when unemployment is stubbornly high and personal incomes are falling. I challenge you to watch this quick video about union-trained military vets who are rebuilding the World Trade Center without getting misty-eyed.
Did you know that union letter carriers save lives all the time by alerting officials when an elderly person hasn’t collected her mail from the mailbox? That firefighters are fighting breast cancer? That in Erie, Pennsylvania, union members arranged haircuts for more than 700 kids going back to school?
As Brazile notes later in her opinion piece, labor unions aren’t perfect – they have their fair share of problems just like any organization – but she also rightly noes that union membership actually raises living and working standards for all working men and women, both union and non-union. What’s more, when union membership rates are high, so is the share of income that goes to the middle class, but when rates of union membership decline, income inequality grows, leaving the middle class to shrink while the top 1% of wealthy Americans gets richer.