Labor Rebekah Entralgo

Americans Are Rediscovering the Power of Unions

Better wages and health care may always face headwinds in Washington, but unions are striking to win them directly.
[Red and Black Leeds / CC BY-NC 2.0]

By Rebekah Entralgo | OtherWords

It was called “Striketober.” While politicians in Washington bickered over infrastructure, jobs, and the social safety net, unionized workers across the heartland went on strike to get their fair share directly.

At one point in October, over 90,000 unionized workers issued strike authorizations — including 10,000 John Deere United Auto Workers (UAW) members, 37,000 nurses and other health care workers at Kaiser Permanente, and 60,000 film and television workers organized with  International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

That trend has continued into November, as John Deere workers in Iowa, Kansas, and Illinois recently rejected the latest contract proposal from management and are continuing their strike.

In total, over 22,000 workers across the country are currently on strike. From hospital staff in West Virginia, steelworkers in Ohio, and educators in Pennsylvania to student workers in New York City, workers are rising up against poverty wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions.

Decades ago, when unions were strong, it wasn’t uncommon to see millions of workers on strike each year. But union membership has rapidly declined over the last few decades, from a peak of over 33 percent of American workers in 1944 to just under 11 percent in 2020.

And as unions weakened, inequality skyrocketed. The share of income going to the top one percent of Americans has doubled from 11 percent in the 1940s to over 22 percent today. It is this pervasive inequality that is driving tens of thousands of U.S. workers to strike.

At John Deere, workers have expressed growing frustration over proposals from management to slash pensions and wage increases while the company has enjoyed record-breaking profits. John Deere is projected to rake in up to $5.9 billion this year, far exceeding its previous high of $3.5 billion in 2013.

Meanwhile, CEO John May gave himself a 160 percent raise — and shareholders a 17 percent raise on dividends. As one worker described it, “We are the last thing they think about.”

President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, while reduced in scope due to powerful corporate Democrats wielding their influence, includes a number of policies to strengthen worker protections and hold corporations accountable.

One provision in particular, lifted directly from the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, would fine employers $50,000 to $100,000 for each violation of the National Labor Relations Act. The bill would also invest over $2 billion in enforcement of workers’ rights, helping government officials more effectively protect workers by investigating and enforcing labor laws.

That would be a big victory. Better wages, health care, paid leave, and real curbs on inequality may always face headwinds in Washington. But as workers across the country are rediscovering, a strong union can win those things directly.

Rebekah Entralgo

Rebekah Entralgo is the managing editor of Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.

9 comments

  1. In the 1970s and ’80s, middle class workers “rose up” against unions, condemning them as “leftist organizations,” and demanding their freedom! Today, less than 11% of workers still belong to unions. Currently, over 10 million Americans are left jobless, many with $0 incomes, 25 years into the Democrats’ war on the poor. Excuse the masses if they don’t consider enhancing the advantages of the middle class to be an urgent priority.

    1. That’s an outright lie. Middle class workers didn’t “rise up” against unions. Instead, unions have been crushed by corporate America. The only way to bargain successfully against a large company is as a union, because mere individuals going up against large companies will be crushed. There are workers who oppose unions getting into politics and just want them to advocate for pay, benefits, and working conditions for the people they represent, but 1) they’re a pretty small minority of union workers; and 2) that’s not at all the same as rising up against unions.

      BTW, what “freedom” are you claiming that workers demanded? The freedom to be poor, work long hours, have lousy working conditions, and get no benefits? Using the word “freedom” in this manner is just as dishonest as calling anti-union laws “right to work” laws (an honest name for them would be “right to work for low wages” laws).

      1. You are totally correct Jeff. I was alive during the Reagan years and watched him crush Patco. I don’t know why this guy wants to pee on people’s feet and tell them it’s raining but I remember his nick and his generally trollish takes. It wasn’t the “middle class”; the movement to break unions in a big way started with Ronald Reagan.

  2. In the mid 1980s I took the lead in organizing the recycling truck drivers in my town into a union. We worked for an environmental nonprofit, and the nonprofit’s recycling program was subsidized by our very progressive city. But the nonprofit was afraid to ask the city for more money so that we could be paid a decent wage — the drivers made $6.50/hour at the time, the non-drivers even less, with no benefits and, illegally, no overtime pay (though overtime was unusual). We were all increasingly angry, so we unionized with the IWW, and I negotiated our first contract. Needless to say, I was very pro-union at that time.

    My views have radically changed since then. As a radical environmentalist first & foremost, I recognize that there are other, far bigger & more important issues than how much people are paid. Unions have advocated for drilling oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (Teamsters), against a statewide rooftop solar panel program in California, against public power in San Francisco (IBEW), and for unreasonably high pay, benefits, & pensions for public employees that cost so much public money that they prevent local governments from providing basic services to needy people, just to name a few examples off the top of my head. If the only issue were the piggy bosses against the workers, it would be a no-brainier. But there are bigger issues at play here, so now I take each union issue individually and no longer support unions per se. If unions were to take the attitude that we’re all in it together, including the natural environment, and stop advocating for their own workers to the detriment of everyone & everything else on the planet, they will regain my support. Until then, I just view them as another problem.

    1. I come from a working class family/My parents were mostly self employed. Since then I have been a member of a few unions that have bot done much for me and me fellow workers, I am now old and retired and dont see joining a union of solving the great inequality in America. I feel as more direct action is required. I think we need a massive National strike by all workers and withdrawing our purchasing power to stop buying things. Nothing except food and shelter. No products like cars,clothing cable,gambling pornography,phones TVs washer and dryers,pots and pans. And most certainly no guns except protection from the fascists running our government.

      1. I fully agree with cessation of consuming things, but for environmental reasons. People need to PERMANENTLY stop buying needless crap, which as you point out is just about everything but food. That said, you are correct that people as a whole have the “power of the purse,” and they have and still can affect the behavior of the rich by not buying their products.

        On the other side of the coin, what unions DO provide is a way to effectively bargain with the bosses & owners. If you don’t have a union, you’re going up against people & entities that are much larger & more powerful than you, and you don’t have a chance. As a group of all the employees, much better chance. And almost all union jobs pay much better with better wages than non-union jobs for the same work.

  3. What a good point Jeff makes in both his posts! Also in the mid 1980s I worked briefly for the parcels division of a famous UK security company and had to pay Union dues off my meagre casual worker wages; I discovered that these dues did not entitle me to anything, and it was explained that this was because I was a “casual”. You can imagine what I thought of the block votes allocated to the unions within the British Labour Party after that. The poor are atomised, the public sector workers and the unions are queued up behind the ownership class (with their advertising spending) and the government in diverting income, taxes and levies into their own earnings. As Dylan wrote if not exactly sang, show me someone who’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.

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