JULY 13, 2017
I grew up in a household that neatly displayed its affiliations in the bathroom magazine rack. There were copies of Ebony, Essence and Jet that my dad brought home from work so that we could be in touch with our blackness in magazine form, and the union newsletters that explained why his job was worth having.
He worked on the assembly line at a car plant in southern Wisconsin, work that regularly sent him to the hospital for surgeries to drain extra fluid from his knees. But those procedures were covered by union-negotiated medical insurance, and the time he had to miss work for them was handled by union-negotiated contractual provisions. Each time he healed, he could go right back to the job he loved in order to provide for our family.
Memories of my dad’s union job feel like they belong in a museum, and that’s only partly because I’m talking about the long-gone 1980s and ’90s. Many jobs added to the American economy these days not only come without unions but also don’t even provide full-time employment. The lack of unionization has sent the bottom flying out of the middle class.
Workers are being deprived of the advantages my dad’s labor union negotiated for my family: wages that helped us save for a down payment on a house after years of moving from apartment to apartment; health care that covered, in addition to Dad’s knee surgeries, treatment for my sister’s asthma, my brother’s autism, my mother’s high blood pressure and Dad’s early-onset prostate cancer.
After years of studying our bathroom’s stack of union publications, I grew enthralled with the existence of union negotiator guys who looked just like my dad, dressed in the Midwestern anti-fashion of workboots and fleeces to guard against our seemingly eternal winters. Though they dressed like my dad, they had knowledge he didn’t, until they shared it with him: how to negotiate fair wages for his physically challenging job and how to avoid illegal and unreasonable work hours and conditions.
Belonging to a union is a form of education that the current national political regime opposes and that states have been working to weaken so that we are unable to be fairly compensated for our work. The dangers of not being able to receive information about wages, hours and working conditions or the bargaining power that unions provide are legion.
As just one example, back in my native state of Wisconsin, after Gov. Scott Walker passed an anti-collective-bargaining law that sharply curtailed unions’ right to fight on behalf of their workers, he was able to pass another law a few months later that eliminated Wisconsin factory and retail workers’ right to weekends off. That doesn’t mean only that thousands of Wisconsinites have lost the right to relax on Saturdays and Sundays; it means also that their employers have gained the right to force people to “volunteer” to work seven days a week or risk being let go. Zero guaranteed days off a week isn’t a system that has been shown to increase either productivity or workplace morale; it just makes people miserable.
I belong to a union myself these days: the Writers Guild of America East, which recently avoided a strike and negotiated more favorable health care coverage for its members. That success was a particularly noteworthy accomplishment in this era when millions of people — many with employer-based plans — are rightly afraid of losing their health coverage.
At a time when the government wants to disembowel public and private health care and when wages are on the decline, our best recourse to these threats is to join existing unions or unionize ourselves.
The last big boom for American unions came during a period that resembles the present one: The Great Depression, like the ’08 recession, left workers deeply unsatisfied with wages and working conditions. Thanks to the New Deal’s favorable collective bargaining legislation, Americans felt free to organize unions and petition their employers for labor rights; there were 12 million labor union members by the end of World War II.
People like me, who have mental museums filled with memories of the stability that came with our parents’ union jobs, could be the perfect leaders of the next labor union renaissance. We millennials, many of whom entered the work force during the last recession, have borne the brunt of the country’s recent decline in employment quality, with lower wages, diminishing benefits and the presence of noncompete clauses that hurt even entry-level employees from finding subsequent jobs. We show higher support for unions than previous generations, and with good reason: Unionized employees typically enjoy better benefits and have made about 27 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts for roughly the last 15 years.
The union newsletters my father kept in our bathroom magazine rack may have faded, but their message — about the value of jobs that provide a fair wage, reasonable conditions and the ability to care for a family — is as timely now as it ever was.