COLUMN: Unions are essential as bulwarks against exploitation and greed

Revitalizing unions as a potent force within American society can ensure that fair and safe labor standards remain protected and that workers have a voice.

Galen Zavala Sherby is a sophomore journalism major at MU. He is an opinions columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater

For decades, union membership in the U.S. has been declining at a steady pace. We live in a time where less people are in unions than at practically every other point in modern American history. From a peak of approximately 35% in the 1950s, the current percentage of unionized workers has settled at around 10%. The material impact of this trend is reflected in the day-to-day lives of every person in this country and informs a lot about what workers can expect to receive from their bosses in the form of wages, benefits and safe working conditions.

The history of the American labor movement goes back almost 200 years and played a critical role in defining the degree of control workers have over the terms of their employment. It was through strikes, sit-ins and other militant labor actions that the working class achieved many of the luxuries people now take for granted. The 40 hour work week, 8 hour work day, mandated lunch breaks, workplace safety standards, etc. were all won through union demands.

Now, American working culture has shifted decisively in opposition to universal union membership, and many people seem to have lost touch with the original reasons unions played such a key role in building this country. Wealth disparities are growing larger while more and more people find it necessary to work multiple jobs or forgo basic necessities just to stay afloat. It should go without saying that organizations by and for the working class should be more prevalent than ever. Somehow, through some bizarre capitalist manipulation, the opposite appears to be the case.

So why has the trend moved so vigorously in this direction? A number of factors are at play in this phenomenon. One of the most critical is the shifting job market and the amount of jobs in sectors such as automotive production and electronics production that have been lost as the economy fluctuates and demands ebb and flow. For example, employment in manufacturing has overall gone down decisively as more jobs are outsourced overseas. With many factories being shut down, formerly unionized workplaces simply no longer exist as the ultra wealthy seek out new labor markets to expand their bottom line.

Another major factor has been the massive lobbying interests pushing for the passage of right to work laws all over the country. They undermine the ability of unions to organize in the states where such laws are enacted and empower corporations to more effectively issue anti-union propaganda to dissuade their formation. These laws consistently drive down wages for workers and have been a major barrier to organizing efforts nationwide.

This must be taken as a wakeup call for all American workers, especially as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on American society. At a time when unemployment has skyrocketed, unionized workplaces have maintained higher rates of employment compared to their non-union counterparts. It may feel as if union membership is superfluous now that basic rights for workers have been won, but unions serve as a way of ensuring that the ruling class can’t act with complete impunity. A world without unions would be one in which employers have absolute control over the standards their employees adhere to; it would be a return to the robber barons of the early industrial revolution.

Demands for better working conditions or pay raises from individual workers will almost always be overlooked in favor of cost-saving measures and expanding profit margins. It’s impossible for workers to bargain with their employers on equal terms when they approach them individually. Through union representation, workers can mobilize their workplace, industry or even the entire nation to leverage their collective power.

Statistics show that more people have a positive view of unions now than in the past 40 years. 48% of all non-union workers in a 2017 survey indicated that they would join a union if given the opportunity to do so. Workers have the power to reintroduce unions as a potent force in American society, and one of the very few institutions that truly represents the interests of working people at large. Recent efforts by Amazon workers in Alabama to unionize their workplace mark a potential turning point in not only the attitudes of Americans toward unionization, but as a possible shift toward the unionization of more economic sectors.

Americans cannot ignore the opportunity the nation is presented with to really have workers’ voices heard and ensure fair compensation for all working people. When workers agitate for the right to form a union, renegotiate their contracts or go on strike, society’s response shouldn’t be to reprimand them for doing so. Everyone has a right to be heard and to advocate for their own wellbeing, and Americans should do everything in their power to enable that.

As part of our commitment to social justice initiatives, we at The Maneater encourage you to consider making a donation to one of the AFL-CIO’s Labor Relief Funds which are used to support workers and union organizations that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The link to donate is https://aflcio.org/covid-19/labor-movement-relief-funds

Edited by Sydney Lewis | slewis@themaneater.com

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