Where We Stand

Unions strengthen communities and economies

By Randi Weingarten, AFT President

“You have to understand that the soul of your community is at stake.”

That’s what Stephanie Kellnhauser, an AFT member in Wisconsin, says. In March, Gov. Scott Walker broke a campaign promise and made Wisconsin the 25th so-called right-to-work state. And indeed, both the soul of her community and the strength of its economy are at stake.

We know that workers in right-to-work states make about $1,500 less per year than workers in states with collective bargaining. When wages are lower, workers leave the state, depressing job creation, and there’s a sizable economic loss to the state. Marquette University economist Abdur Chowdhury estimates the impact of right-to-work legislation on Wisconsin will be “a net loss of direct and indirect income of at least $5.8 billion annually.”

On the other hand, we know that when unions are strong, so are communities and economies. When unions were at their peak, more workers—upward of 50 percent—were in the middle class. More workers had a real voice. Conversely, a decline in union membership—spurred on by trickle-down economics, ideological attacks and globalization—is directly linked to the rise in income inequality.

At a time when only the wealthiest 10 percent have grown wealthier as a result of the gains in productivity, workers, more than ever, need a voice on the job. Collective bargaining can lift all boats, union and nonunion alike. And when the right to collectively bargain is taken away, those boats start to sink.

Look at wages. In the heyday of the American labor movement, non-managerial workers’ wages went up 75 percent. As unions have been on the decline, these workers have only seen a 4 percent bump. Still, even today, union workers earn 28 percent more than nonunion workers. We know from our own research that, for state employees, collective bargaining can make a 30 percent difference in terms of salaries.

When two-thirds of our economic activity is driven by consumer spending, it’s critical that working families have more money in their pockets to spend. But politicians like Walker, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and others don’t seem interested in putting money into the pockets of working families. They seem interested instead in attacking unions, so the only meaningful voice in politics would be their donors and funders—not working families.

Those attacks are not limited to the statehouse. The plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association are trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the long-standing practice, known as fair share, which ensures that all the workers we represent share the cost of negotiations, contract enforcement and other services the union provides.

The way we fight back is to stand together, ensuring we have our unions. And as Stephanie Kellnhauser reminds us, we aren’t just in this fight to save ourselves. We’re not building power for power’s sake. It’s about leveraging that power for children, families and communities.

We know collective bargaining is the vehicle that allows us to champion fairness, democracy and opportunity in the workplace. It allows us to advance solutions to create and maintain high-quality public education, healthcare and public services and to unite the people we represent and the people we serve. Some call it bargaining for the public good. I call it the future of America’s labor movement.

The souls of our communities, our union, our economy and our nation are at stake. Power never yields willingly. In order to build it, we must organize. We must mobilize. We must fight back. We must fight forward to a better future for all working people.

Public Employee Advocate, Spring 2015 Download PDF (2.29 MB)
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