Labor Day 2018 in Chicago was marked by protesters who hoped to raise awareness for their cause by disrupting traffic around Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Shutting down traffic near the third busiest airport on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year was intended to bring attention to the violence and lack of opportunity on the West and South side of Chicago. With protesters largely failing at their desperate attempt to capture the attention and support of local and national leadership via their economic disruption, Labor Day continued on for most of the country, unimpeded by calls for worker rights. It is, of course, an ironic situation as Labor Day exists to commemorate the struggle of the Labor Movement, which is desperately needed in an age of growing poverty and economic inequality.
With that in mind, Labor Day 2018 arrived on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel pay raises for federal employees, which represents the latest move in the Trump Administration’s effort curb the power of public sector unions. Although President Trump has voiced support for private sector unions and he has pursued protectionist trade policies, which can afford workers greater economic leverage as long as they do not undermine economic opportunities too greatly, the deeds of the Trump Administration do not always match the President’s word. At the very least, Mr. Trump does not appear to support public sector union workers in any shape or form. Fortunately, the backbone of any labor movement hinges on public support, whether or not the US President supports public sector workers or even private sector workers.
That said, teachers across the country, as an example, have been fighting over the course of months for better working conditions and greater pay. Like the O’Hara protests, they have failed to garner massive public support. The reason offers a powerful lessons. A majority of Americans are sympathetic to the needs of teachers, but support quickly drops when people learn how much teachers actually make. Today, just over 10% of the workforce belongs to a union as income inequality and poverty are growing. Because unions give workers the leverage needed to improve their wages, increased financial struggles should translate into a union boom, but it is not. It is because unions no longer ensure average workers have the economic leverage they need that public support for unions has not materialized.
Like the broader economy, which suffers from growing income inequality, unions have increasingly served a decreasing slice of the workforce. In doing so, they have too often enriched their own members while ignoring or benefiting from the low wages of non-members. In other words, unions cannot garner sufficient public support for their causes, because they are not helping a majority of American workers. Just as private sector unions are less inclined to join public sector unions in protest, because they have no direct interest in doing so, the majority of American workers are not going to support union efforts. Conversely, unions do not see any benefit in helping non-union members, especially those with no prospects of unionizing, so they do not fight for the rights of all workers.
Unions, as well as trade organizations that represent the interests of those working in their industries, must recognize their survival depends on their populist appeal. Only by garnering enough public support can unions enjoy sufficient political influence to assert their will and hope to attract enough paying members to ensure their financial survival. There may not be a direct benefit for unions to support non-union members, but there is a very compelling indirect benefit. As part of a globalized economy, unions need to fight for an economic environment that ensures the best working conditions, wages, and opportunities for workers within the US and around the world. Instead of forcing workers to compete against each on national and global stages, unions need to help unite workers.
Furthermore, the second term of President Barack Obama was marked by major protests around the world, which included the Arab Spring Revolutions and numerous protests throughout Europe. The common theme was the demands of people for greater and better economic opportunities. At home, the Occupy Movement and protests by near-minimum wage workers captured the news. Although the same sentiments remain this very day, those pushing for better wages and improved living standards were exhausted into silence by the lack of progress and lack of attention. At the moment, income inequality is the trendy buzz word, but the desire for better wages and more opportunities lives on. Alone, however, the efforts of workers to forge ahead with change, no matter how much attention they get, is doomed to failure without an organized labor movements. Unions need to capitalize on the energy for change and lead a new labor movement for the Twenty-First Century.
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