Robert Reich: Why unions matter to you

If you have a job, join a union

Published March 23, 2019 4:00AM (EDT)

Grand Hyatt workers and supporters strike outside of the Grand Hyatt in the Union Square area of downtown San Francisco, Nov. 5, 2009. (AP/Paul Sakuma)
Grand Hyatt workers and supporters strike outside of the Grand Hyatt in the Union Square area of downtown San Francisco, Nov. 5, 2009. (AP/Paul Sakuma)

This originally appeared on Robert Reich's blog.

As I travel around the country, I tell people: if you have a job, join a union. And if you don’t have a union, start one.

You see, it all comes down to the balance of power between business and workers.

You strengthen the middle class by strengthening unions.

In the mid-1950s, unions were strong, and wages grew in tandem with the economy. Nearly one third of all workers in the United States were unionized.

This gave workers across America – even those who weren’t unionized – significant power to demand and get better wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions.

Yet starting in the 1980s and with increasing ferocity since then, private-sector employers have fought against unions.

Corporate raiders demanded that companies boost share prices by busting unions or moving to non-union states.

Ronald Reagan’s administration fired the nation’s unionized air traffic controllers and launched an all-out assault on workers’ rights, concentrating even more power in the hands of corporate executives.

In short, anti-worker corporations and politicians joined together to stop workers from joining together.

We now know that as union membership declined, middle class incomes shrank.

The two trends are the exact mirror images of each other.

The wealthy and big corporations continued to take home a larger share of the nation’s wealth, while workers were left behind.  Unions balance the power of workers with corporations, by allowing workers to join forces to get a fair share.

As an individual your voice is limited, but there is power in numbers.  Today, unions are more important than ever to the survival of the middle class.

Corporations have tremendous power over our lives.

They dictate everything from bathroom breaks to health care for millions of Americans.

In the halls of Washington and state legislatures, their political power has allowed them to block increases in the minimum wage, roll back workplace protections, and deny workers their benefits.

Unless workers balance the power of big corporations, the middle class will continue to get a smaller piece of the pie as more and more wealth goes to those at the top.

Unions are also essential to the workplace of the future.

Workers must contend with the forces of globalization and technological change. With the stroke of a keyboard, executives can send jobs overseas.

Automated technologies threaten to replace workers in every sector of the economy, making jobs less and less secure. Without unions, workers will be completely at the mercy of these trends.

But this isn’t just a theoretical argument.

The tangible, real-world examples of how unions make workers’ lives better are everywhere you look. 

Hospitality workers were able to secure raises and job protections from Marriott, the world’s largest hotel chain, because of the power of their union.

Disney employees secured a $15 an hour base-pay after years of opposition from management.

JetBlue’s flight crew have unionized to negotiate better wages and more flexible schedules.

We must continue to expand unions to restore balance to our economy.

In 2017, more than 250,000 additional American workers joined unions, and research shows almost 60 million more workers would like to join–if they had the opportunity.

Public approval of labor unions is at 62 percent, a 15-year high.

That’s why powerful corporations and their enablers in government are trying to squash workers by pushing so-called “right to work” laws and undermining health care, workplace safety, and retirement protections.

We have the power to overcome these attacks. If you want a better life for you and your children, join a union. And if you want a better America, support unions.

By Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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All Salon The Economy & Innovation Middle Class Unions U.s. Economy