Joining the middle class is at the heart of the American Dream. Immigrants and low income Americans struggle tirelessly in hopes of obtaining stable jobs with fair pay. Unfortunately, these jobs, and the American Dream with them, are dying. Unions are the nation’s best chance at preserving and growing middle-class jobs.
Wages are trending in the wrong direction because unionization rates have declined. As employers have attacked unions and chipped away at the right to organize, union membership has fallen to historically low levels. The decline in unionization since 1973 corresponds with a 40 percent increase in wage inequality in that time period. For example, the proportion of full-time construction workers who are unionized has fallen more than 40 percent in the last 40 years. As a result, the average construction worker today earns $10,000 less per year than in 1973, in today’s dollars. If nothing is done to stop this trend, the middle class will disappear. Labor unions offer practical solutions to help workers and fight for fair wages. Unions provide pathways to higher incomes, thus growing the middle- class, the economic and political foundation of the United States.
As president of Teamsters Local 237, I find these numbers deeply troubling. I worry that our members’ jobs, providing essential services to New Yorkers, which in turn provides members with fair pay and benefits, will not be available for the next generation. I make sure that Local 237 does everything it can to continue growing its membership and providing as many benefits as possible to our members. However, not all labor leaders focus on helping the economy or even their members. Some drive up costs to employers by creating overpaid positions and wasting money on administrative costs, rather than serving their members, a result of incompetence or corruption. It is regrettable that such misguided leaders have given organized labor a bad name. Workers deserve better. I make certain that Local 237 fights for its members while working with New York City to support its infrastructure as effectively as possible.
Unionization can make a tremendous difference in a family’s quality of life. Union membership provides opportunities for greater workplace satisfaction, earnings, job security and social interaction. A 2014 study confirmed that union members are more satisfied with their lives than non-union members across all demographic groups.
We take many of organized labor’s longstanding triumphs for granted, such as the 40-hour workweek, child-protection laws, and the right to collective bargaining. These rights, because unions earned them a century ago, are now accepted as standard practice. It is difficult to imagine that robber barons once forced workers to spend 80-hour weeks in unsafe conditions for meager pay. Unions have made tremendous progress since then, but their work is not done. Lower-income Americans face new challenges from outsourcing, automation, and a rising cost of living. Organized labor must remain strong so that, in the future, it will be difficult to imagine a time without universal health care and a livable minimum wage. Workers still need unions to right injustices. Walmart, for example, used its considerable legal resources to prevent its workers from unionizing. These workers need to unionize, however, as Walmart exploits its employees by cutting hours, withholding wages and reducing healthcare benefits.
Unions promote equality across the board by bringing workers together and representing their common interests. As union membership has declined, the wage gap for African-American women has tripled. I’m proud to note that Local 237 led a successful fight against such wage disparity for school safety agents. Unions can also provide paths to citizenship for the nation’s 22 million immigrant workers. Organized labor is among the earliest and strongest supporters of the LGBT equality movement, and played a crucial role in bringing about marriage equality.
Local 237 strives to be the kind of union that supports its middle-class membership while improving the services its members provide to New Yorkers. Local 237 maintains a strong working relationship with government, carefully monitoring legislation that affects the interests of Teamsters. Members can count on Local 237 for support filing grievances if their rights are infringed upon. The union also provides health, welfare and pension benefits, housing assistance, free commercial driver’s license classes, and scholarships for children of members. With the support of governments and members, unions like Local 237 can grow the economy, bring about social change, and improve the lives of millions of workers.