Happy Labor Day! This is usually a day we Americans celebrate with parades and festivals. We watch as the fire trucks, policemen, and other civil groups pass by in the parade, but do we take the second to think about how they relate to this holiday?
Labor and its unions have been fundamental to the success of the American class since the beginning of the Industrial Age. The rich and powerful corporations do not need a voice fighting for them. They have enough financial and social clout to see the change they desire enacted with little hardship. They can lobby Congress and fund campaigns without limit. But who speaks for the American workers? Who fights for them in Congress? Who can make their voice matter to a candidate running for political office? The answer is unions.
Without the existence of unions, our American past would be much bleaker. Workers’ unions throughout time have fought for average Americans to be treated with human dignity. They have argued that no one should be allowed to work more than 40 hours in one week without being compensated in extra for it. Without unions, we would not have that law on the books. Unions have fought for our right to a five-day workweek. Unions have fought for our right to be compensated for any injuries we may encounter while on the job. Unions have fought for our right to employment-backed health care. Unions have argued that no child should have to work in order to support their family. Unions have fought for a minimum wage, and not just a wage that pays but a wage on which we Americans can actually survive and thrive.
Some pundits will argue that these battles are finished now. They insist that unions are no longer necessary. The labor laws are on the books, so we no longer need groups representing labor. I disagree.
The fundamental purpose of capitalism is profit. It drives entrepreneurs to innovate. We try to be as creative as possible in order to catch the desire of the American consumer and, in return, reap the profits. That is a good objective. That goal is what makes American products so advanced. However, that goal can sometimes lead to ruthless, inhumane actions. When a company cares solely about the bottom line, it can forget about caring for its workers. A wage increase, coverage for health care, and benefits can look like mere nuisances to the company. This is what leads a company to cut these benefits first. Today, a company can strip away vacation benefits, sick pay, wage increases, and more without being penalized under the law.
This is why unions are still relevant. We still have work to do. When we do not care for our workers, productivity decreases. When productivity decreases, profit will eventually fall. You may think that then it is in the interest of the business to invest in its workers. Some companies, like Starbucks and Costco, are this adept. They think in the long term. However, some businesses think only in the short term. How can we make this year’s profits look good? How can we keep our stock price up? What if there is a recession on the horizon? These are the pressures keeping companies from putting workers first. These pressures stem directly from the objective of profit and the need to satisfy a public company’s shareholders.
But workers cannot wait for a secure economy, and workers cannot think in only the short term. They need to save money to send their children to college. They need to be able to afford health care, food, their mortgage, and other necessities. They need money just to survive. That is why we need laws in order to ensure that businesses focus on workers along with profits.
The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. Starbucks, for example, posts record profits and stock prices quarter after quarter. Along with that financial success, it continues to invest in its workers. Employees across the hierarchy are given vacation pay, annual pay increases, stock benefits, affordable health care, and even free college. These investments cost the company money in the short term, but they have awarded the company with enormous profit in the long term. This success is due to employees (called partners at Starbucks) loving their jobs. It is stressful, difficult work for partners, but a partner wants to come to work each day and treat customers with care so that they return because those partners feel supported by their company. A company that invests in its employees invests in its customers at the same time. Also, happier employees means that they are more likely to not quit their job, which reduces training costs and turnover rates. Furthermore, employees who love their company are more likely to return and spend their hard-earned money on that company’s own products increasing revenue.
Now, there are companies that resist this employee-investment mentality. These companies care deeply and solely about the bottom line. This allows a company to keep prices as low as possible. If it does not have to spend money on its employees, then it can reap all the profits from sales. You would think that this vicious mentality could not continue for very long since employees would soon detest their jobs and, in return, not treat the customers well. However, when workers do not have a collective voice by not being allowed to form a union, they cannot fight for better conditions. Also, with the job market being so tough, it is not that a worker can simply shop the job market for which job treats him/her best. They take whatever they can find. Furthermore, such a company profits off this mistreatment further through a vicious cycle. When workers are paid so little, they can only afford less expensive goods. Where can they find those? Right back at their employer. The money the employee earned goes right back into the company’s pockets. When workers are paid so little, they are actually forced to join government assistance programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid. No one should have to be on government assistance while working full time. Such a company is actually making the American taxpayers foot the bill of paying its workers a decent wage.
These companies often vehemently to keep unions from forming. They squash any attempts for collective bargaining by allegedly threatening to terminate people who are caught attempting to do so. The American worker cannot fight giant corporations alone.
This is why we will need unions forever. The second a greedy company can get the chance to cut workers’ benefits, it will. We need unions to stand up to corporate fat cats and remind them that workers are humans with families just trying to survive. We have a stronger, more secure economy when everyone has money in their pockets. Unions make it more difficult for the rich corporations to steal from the American worker. This is not about class warfare but about reverse Robin Hood techniques. Not treating your workers with dignity and not awarding them for making your company successful is theft.
For the future, we have many battles to overcome. President Obama announced this Labor Day that all federal contractors must provide paid sick leave to their workers. Unions are fighting this battle for the private sector to take up this responsibility as well. No one should have to work when they are sick. No one should have to leave their child home alone when he/she is sick since mom or dad cannot afford to take off work.
Also, Americans work more hours than most other developed nations. According to the International Labour Organization, Americans work hundreds of hours more per year than our peer nations. We need time off work in order to be most productive at our jobs. The United States has no federal law demanding vacation pay. Unions are fighting to change that.
Also, with the reality of inflation, the minimum wage must increase regularly. There are many misconceptions around who works for minimum wage, but the reality is that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty or be on government assistance programs. The reality is that some adults do need to work hourly paid jobs. These are not just the jobs of teenagers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds, “Workers under age 25 represented only about one fifth of hourly paid workers.” These workers have families. They deserve to make more than the poverty line. That is why unions are fighting for a living wage. We need to pass constitutional amendments tying the minimum wage to inflation so that workers are paid with dignity. More information about the economics of raising the wage are available in my article Why Raise the Wage?
We in the United States have been sold a lie. We have been convinced that it used to be possible for only one parent to work to support a family but that is just not possible anymore these days. It is true that it is not possible anymore, but that reality is thanks to all the income going to the 1% income earners. Over the past 30 years, the American worker has seen his/her wage increase by a measly 10%. Meanwhile, the average CEO has seen his/her wage increase by 997%. This massive income inequality has caused the middle class to work harder for less, especially since the cost of college tuition has increased 1,120%, health care 601%, food 244%, and shelter 380%. The American middle class is starving for a hero to fight for them. That is why unions need to exist.
Until our campaign finance system is fixed, wealthy companies can continue funding campaigns, buying elections, and influencing candidates without limit. The American worker does not stand a chance when only 400 families have been responsible for over 50% of the campaign donations given during this campaign cycle thus far. Our democracy is turning into an oligarchy controlled by the rich and powerful, evidenced by Princeton and Northwestern studies proving such. Public opinion does not matter anymore since the rich can just buy up all the airtime to smear the other candidate with infinitely many lies and slander so that they do not win. This is why around 80-90% of the time the candidate with the most money wins. Shouldn’t the best ideas win? Unions are the only ones who have a chance in this fight against the powerful private interests. We need them to fight for us.
Some unions are, admittedly, too powerful in their own sectors. I would argue that some unions need to be reformed so that workers can actually be terminated when their performance is deemed unsatisfactory. However, unions need the right to strike and demand fair pay for workers. These tactics would not be possible without the ability to band together. Alone, we are quiet. Together, we are formidable.
Happy Labor Day, and keep up the good fight.