On May Day: The Enduring Importance of Labor Unions

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This was originally published in The Jesuit Post.

“Unions used to be important, but they’re not necessary anymore.” It’s a line many of us have heard. We often associate unions with particular images of the past—steelworkers, auto manufacturing, coal miners, and railroad workers facing brutal conditions and low wages. These workers literally battled for protections and pay. With the decline of these types of jobs, many have a feeling that unions aren’t really necessary for protection. Yet, a dramatically increasing number of non-union workers have stated that they would join a union if they could.

So why don’t they? 

The United States has not seriously updated its labor law in decades. Companies have the upperhand in almost every way to prevent unionization. Workplace protections receive little funding or enforcement. Frankly, workers don’t join unions because our system has made it as difficult as possible to do so. We need to change that. Let’s look at the current state of labor, the challenges faced, and how to address them headon.

The industries in which Americans work has changed drastically over the last 100 years, and even in the last several decades. In 1900, over 40% of Americans worked in agriculture. Today, that number is down to 1.4%. From 1900 to 1960, building trades and manufacturing made up 25-30% of jobs; today it is about 13%. By contrast, the service industry has grown to over 80% of the workforce. If one strictly associates unions with steel, then it is no surprise we may see their role as diminished.

Unions, however, have never been merely about safety harnesses and hardhats. They are primarily about justice.

One of the biggest challenges workers face today is job insecurity. COVID has thrown this insecurity into sharp relief. Workers increasingly rely on multiple jobs, especially gig jobs like driving for ride shares or delivering food. Under current federal law, workers who drive for these sorts of companies can be labeled “independent contractors” so that the company avoids paying all of the associated benefits and taxes. We might laud these tech companies as innovative, but really they’re simply following the worker-abuse playbook of generations past.

When workers do try to organize, companies have a clear advantage in breaking unionization efforts. For example, companies often mandate that workers attend meetings in which they are bombarded with anti-union propaganda. During their recent campaign for a union, Amazon workers were harassed with meetings, texts, and fliers in bathrooms with anti-union messages. Amazon actually hired more seasonal workers to throw off the votes. One might say, “But Amazon pays $15 and hour, so why a union?” Amazon workers face a myriad of injustices: urinating in water bottles because they aren’t allowed breaks; a lack of protections from the pandemic; and unbearable warehouse conditions.

Workers have only minuscule recourse for these challenges. Workplace protection agencies are often understaffed; corporations bust unions with impunity; workplaces fire workers who stand up for dignity and justice; and even when workers successfully unionize, the company often stalls bargaining in an attempt to break the unionizers’ will.

Amidst all of these challenges, economic inequality and injustice have spiraled out of control. From March to November last year, 647 billionaires got $960 billion richer. That’s a hard number to fathom, so put another way: they received $40,591 every second. Put another away again, the ultrarich got a welder’s annual salary richer every second. 

In the last week, 18 million adults reported not having enough food in their household. Billionaires could give each of them $53,000 and have the same amount of money they had before the pandemic. That is not only unjust, it is vile. 

Unions have historically been some of the most important institutions for leveling the playing field. They raise real wages, invest in communities, and ensure not only worker justice, but justice for the whole community. That’s because unions are workers, not some far off distant entity. They are the true and honest workers we encounter every day.

So how do we make them stronger?

One of the best ways to strengthen labor unions is updated labor legislation, specifically by passing the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act. The act addresses numerous loopholes in outdated and outmoded labor law. For example, under current law, the IRS uses a series of twenty questions to determine whether someone is an employee or independent contractor. The PRO Act simplifies this into faster, more straightforward, more just ABC test. Doing so prevents rideshare companies, fast food franchises, and even universities from purposefully misclassifying workers.

The act additionally prohibits many of the union busting practices seen at Amazon. It specifically outlaws captive audience anti-union meetings, eases access to collective bargaining, and overturns “right-to-work” laws. Once workers do form a union, the law further prevents businesses from intentionally stalling bargaining. As a whole, the PRO Act is one of the most important pieces of pro-worker legislation currently in play.

While this legislation is important, it is not the sole fix for workers or inequality. A colleague recently pointed out to me that workers don’t just join unions, they form unions. Unions are a bond of solidarity between workers and their communities. If we really want worker and economic justice, we have to get involved.

Many unions participate in what’s known as common good or social justice unionism. This unionism ties together worker justice, community well-being, racial justice, and student groups into an effort to strengthen the community as a whole. It recognizes that worker justice is by definition tied to healthcare, housing, education, and more because workers are fundamentally community members. In Chicago, for example, teachers won and continue to fight for students of immigrant families, combat structural racism, and create healthier school buildings.

This kind of unionism demands something of you though. It means we recognize that workers are more than just someone who provides us with a good or service. They are our neighbors, and we work alongside each other for the good of our communities.

Pope Benedict XVI sums it all up in Caritas in Veritate

What is meant by the word “decent” in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.

Ken Homan is a Jesuit brother from the Midwest Province. He is currently working on a doctorate in history at Georgetown University where he is a graduate assistant for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.