Unions Are One Answer to Making the Economy Work for the 99 Percent

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A Friday panel at Netroots Nation in Phoenix, “Unions as the Answer to the Defining Issue of our Time,” made the point that empowering unions is about more than just the workers having a path to the middle class; it is about strengthening the entire economy.

The panel was moderated by Seema Nanda, deputy chief of staff to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. On the panel were Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; Frank Piccioli, President of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2960 with the City of Phoenix and Arizona EMS Workers United; Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, and Naomi Walker, who serves as an assistant to the president of AFSCME.

The panel’s description set the stage:

It’s no accident that corporate-backed politicians have been on the attack against unions. They know what we have known for a long time: joining a union is one of the best ways to un-rig the system and level the playing field for all workers. After decades of these attacks, wages are dropping, inequality is rising – and women, communities of color, and the millennial generation still face especially steep hurdles in today’s economy. The system is rigged. This panel will explore what the labor movement is doing to reverse these trends and what challenges lie ahead. There’s no doubt that strong unions are a key part of the solution to income inequality, the only question is how workers will organize a winning movement in the face of corporate-funded attacks.

Neera Tanden described how all income gains in the economy have been going to the top. One third of the stagnation and decline in wages in men is due to the decline of unions – down to 11 percent of the total workforce and less than 7 percent of the private-sector workforce. This is a challenge for the economy writ large, a challenge for families, people struggling with stagnant wages and rising costs. Other countries have figured this out. Unionization rates of up to 40 percent in countries like Canada and Australia allow people to have wage gains. In hard times, not just workers bear all the risk.

Grijalva said that with the decline of unions comes a decline in income, wages, working conditions and the overall political landscape. We see rising income inequality, wage disparity, and a continuing widening of that disparity. The decline is not the result of attrition; it has been a deliberate, long-run effort by corporate America and in some instances government to strip away the ability of unions to organize. As they began to strip it away, power shifted to ownership, to corporate America. Now we see the effect.

The Progressive Caucus and allies in the labor movement have begun to draw symbolic but important lines around raising wages and the push for executive orders to stop wage theft and encourage collective bargaining.

But the central thing, these symbolic victories set a tone, then when workers get opportunity, gains are made. There is work in the federal area with executive orders, but passing legislation in Congress now that is pro-union is near to impossible.

Read more at NationofChange.


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