Unions are still vital

Labor movement is growing into new sectors, fighting for progress for all

THIS LABOR DAY, let’s forego the usual doom-and-gloom about a supposedly dying American union movement.

The labor movement is alive, well, and shaping this country in ways all reasonable Americans recognize we need: by promoting social, economic, and racial justice and ensuring those who work long hours at hard jobs have a voice at their workplaces.

So why the naysaying? Because people who say the labor movement is dying are looking in the wrong place – the past. They’re looking at their grandfathers’ unions, at a movement that was anchored in just a few industries. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute shows today’s unions represent workers from a broader range of sectors, with nearly 40 percent working in educational and health services, and unions are flourishing in “new economy” industries, such as digital journalism. This changed workforce is increasingly joining together in areas where our economy is growing and adapting to these realities by exploring new forms of worker organization.

Demographics have changed too: According to the EPI, approximately 65 percent of union workers in 2016 were women and/or people of color. Massachusetts is one of four states in the country where women now outnumber men in unions. And nationally the gap is closing fast: The total number of women in unions in 2016 was only a percentage point behind men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As we face a more divided nation, where a handful of Americans take far too much of the economic pie, the people who do the real work need a collective voice to build stronger and more equitable communities. For an example of this pressing need, consider the rapidly expanding home care field. Nearly 54,000 home care workers in Massachusetts provide compassionate professional care to seniors and people with disabilities – allowing the state’s most vulnerable residents to live independently and with dignity. As the population ages and the elder demographic balloons, the demand for more home care workers will have a corresponding jump.

Yet the people who do this vital work, overwhelmingly women of color and immigrants, make an average of just $13,300 annually with little or no access to benefits. More than half of home care workers are forced to rely on public assistance and struggle to afford basic necessities such as food and rent. Because of the demanding work and poor pay, turnover is extraordinarily high – almost 50 percent. Increased wages and better working conditions will strengthen this growing workforce and ensure our seniors can continue to receive the quality care they need and deserve.

Perhaps most overlooked is the ability of unions to influence the economic and social issues that affect all Americans – whether they are in a union or not. Research by the EPI shows a direct correlation between strong unions and increased middle incomes. Simply put, when unions are strong, middle income wages go up for all workers – increasing purchasing power, promoting economic growth, and creating a higher quality of life.

Similarly, unions advocate for issues that are important to all workers – paid sick time, affordable healthcare, a living wage, and civil rights. Earlier this year, health care workers fought congressional Republicans’ disastrous efforts to strip health care coverage from millions of hardworking Americans and to protect the gains made under the Affordable Care Act. Union members are also spearheading efforts to secure a $15 minimum wage and paid family and medical leave for all workers in Massachusetts. And most recently, unions mobilized and marched in solidarity with thousands of residents to fight bigotry, racism, and hate.

Today’s labor movement is the vehicle through which we’re building equality and prosperity for all working people. Despite challenges that lie ahead, we can’t bemoan the loss of union jobs that aren’t coming back. Just as our forebears did in factories and coal mines, we must continue our fight to ensure all workers – including those not yet unionized – have good jobs, fair wages, and a voice in the workplace.

Meet the Author

Income inequality remains a serious threat to the American dream. The answer to closing this escalating gap isn’t to turn away from unions. Instead, it’s to embrace the economic and social justice issues that we fight for — a sense of basic fairness that benefits all American workers.

Tyrék Lee, Sr. is executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East