I link two different articles here, each of them explaining the dilemma in which we find out society today.
On the one hand, there is the potential strike of the Chicago Teachers Union. This situation pits a Democratic mayor against the city’s public school teachers, who stand united (98% voted to authorize a strike). They should have been his allies. President Obama will need their votes in two months.
On the other, there is a growing realization that the new jobs created since the recession of 2008 are low-wage jobs. The middle class is losing ground. Many new college graduates find themselves working at a fast-food chain or in retail sales, not making enough to pay off their student loans. The jobs they expected to get have disappeared.
What is happening to our country? The middle class is shrinking. The rich are getting richer. Income inequality is growing. The ranks of the poor and the near-poor are expanding. There is a full-court press to eliminate collective bargaining or reduce the power of unions, rendering them toothless.
The attack on unions is an attack on the middle class. It is an attack on an institution that builds a middle class. Unions were an essential part of the movement to create a middle class, allowing poor people to find jobs with a pension, health benefits and a decent wage. As unions wither, the middle class will shrivel even more.
Unions were an important ally in the civil rights movement and they have been fundamental in promoting the economic progress of black and Hispanic workers.
Consider this guest post on the Shanker Blog by Norm and Velma Hill, veterans of the civil rights movement and the union movement:
With a lot of prodding from [A. Philip] Randolph, the AFL-CIO… came to recognize the deep connection between labor rights and civil rights. The civil rights movement has moved the same way, acknowledging organized labor as by far its strongest ally. In a 1961 speech, Dr. King spoke to this, declaring that “Negroes are almost entirely a working people. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education and respect in their community. That is why blacks support labor’s demands and fight laws that curb labor.”
That is why the labor hater and the race baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-black epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other. That is why, at the time of King’s assassination in 1968, he was preparing to lead a march in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of black sanitation workers who were striking for union recognition. And that is why, for generations of black Americans and other minorities, a “good” union job was understood to be a path to the middle-class.
Still today, the benefits of trade union membership for African Americans, women, and other minorities are clear. According to one recent estimate, the wages of black union members are 31 percent higher than the wages of African Americans who are not union members. The union wage advantage for women workers is 34 percent; for Latino workers, it’s a whopping 51 percent. That being true, the decline of the union movement should be of special concern. In the mid-1950s, about one-third of the workforce belonged to unions. Today the proportion is down to not much more than 10 percent.
Some black and Hispanic entrepreneurs have done well during this period of growing income inequality. But black and Hispanic poverty remains deep and entrenched. Destroying unions eliminates the good jobs where black and Hispanic workers earn more. Access to the middle class becomes harder when unions are eliminated.
As the non-union charter sector expands, teachers’ unions are weakened. 88% of charter schools are non-union. It is easier for them to fire expensive teachers or to fire teachers who don’t conform or to fire whistle-blowers. There is no evidence that non-union charter schools are systematically more successful than public schools with unions. Here and there, you will find a high-flying non-union charter school, but you can find many more high-flying unionized public schools. On average, charters do no better than public schools when they enroll the same students and have the same resources.
So, yes, we need a rebirth of unionism. Yes, working people need protection from predatory employers who care only for lowering costs, no matter what the human cost. This country must restore a balance and sanity to its policies, and that won’t happen as long as the most powerful figures are joined in an effort to destroy unions and to privatize public education.
P.S. A personal disclaimer: I do not belong to a union. I never have.