Why Unions Still Matter

How A Labor Movement Revival Can Address Poverty & Economic Prosperity

As a candidate for office with a mission to address systemic poverty and implement human-centered economic development measures if elected, the labor movement is of particular interest given its historical relationship with social justice movements, including this nation’s ongoing experience with the struggle for civil and human rights.

Generational poverty in America is a great tragedy. It is particularly troubling because generational poverty – the kind created and perpetuated by institutions and systems – is solvable. In one of the wealthiest countries in the history of the earth, the United States is an industrialized society with an advanced system of democracy, yet more than 45 million Americans still live in poverty.

Our social safety net is doing yeoman’s work for many, but relative to other industrialized democracies, our system seems incorrigible by lack of political will, and ultimately insufficient.

How might we ever address this looming giant? One of the answers to the puzzle of poverty is a revival of the Labor Movement. To find our roadmap for future progress, we can look to history as a guide. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the American people a Second Bill of Rights, a strategy for “the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known.”  To this end, Roosevelt listed eight rights:

  1. The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
  2. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  3. The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  4. The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  5. The right of every family to a decent home;
  6. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  7. The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  8. The right to a good education.

Our 32nd President offered a pathway out of poverty by enumerating the long-term goals of the Labor Movement. In a state of the union address, he highlighted the important work of union halls to the entire world. His New Deal would rely on unions. Today, given the enormity of income inequality in the United States and the pervasiveness of poverty, our prospects for a better future again rely on unions and the Labor Movement.

The present-day Labor Movement faces two big challenges: declining union membership and efforts to stymie the growth of unions and their influence by corporate and political forces. This is concerning to all who hope to achieve shared economic prosperity and eradicate poverty.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that the level of inequality – which fell during the New Deal but has risen dramatically since the late 1970’s – corresponds to the rise and fall of unionization in the United States.

unions and shared prosperity

An article published in the American Sociological Review shows that higher levels of unionization in a state result in lower levels of poverty among most working families, both those with a union member and the much larger number with no union members.

Union membership plays a role in economic prosperity and eradicating poverty at both the macro and micro levels of society, meaning we will need a commitment to the Labor Movement’s revival at the federal, state and local levels of government.

How do we inspire a Labor Movement Revival? We must be our own advocates. The facts are on our side. We know that when people have the ability to collectively bargain for their rights, when employees are allowed to share in their company’s success, and when economic development strategies put people first, everyone wins. The Labor Movement in this country has known this and has been preaching this Social Gospel for generations. We must remind voters of this come November and in every election cycle going forward. We must continually petition our government and elected officials and demand economic policies that address poverty and income inequality on a broader scale, in addition to equal pay and the right for individuals to collectively bargain and form unions.

This can be done. Our society is perhaps more attuned to these issues than ever before and our political appetite for policymakers who are responsive to the needs of working-class Americans has grown. On this Labor Day, I would like to recognize all of the unsung heroes who have fought this fight for decades and for those still in the trenches. Your activism is one of the highest forms of citizenship and service to this country. You have my eternal thanks and enduring support.

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