Democracy at risk when unions attacked

Labor movement stands for shared prosperity


AS THE 2018 ELECTIONS APPROACH, many voters find themselves doing a lot of soul-searching about the state of our democracy. On the one hand, the Trump administration seems to be pushing our democracy nearly to the breaking point on a daily basis, flaunting the rule of law and engaging in tactics that threaten to stifle the rights of a free press, along with other liberties. On the other hand, millions of people across the country are joining protests to speak out against various Trump policies and are exercising their democratic rights in record numbers.

Undoubtedly, one of the most important actions any of us can take this year is turn out to vote and encourage others to do the same. It’s the lifeblood of our democratic process. But we also must remember that, in our nation, democracy does not end at the voting booth. Democracy is the perpetual fabric of our nation’s identity. Now, in one of the most prominent parts of our daily lives — our jobs — democracy is under attack.

The Supreme Court’s recent Janus ruling was bankrolled by a handful of billionaires, aiming to make it harder for people to come together to form unions. Janus undermines the collective process in the workplace through which employees can democratically elect their leaders and democratically vote to ratify a contract. Unions are the only way to ensure that American workers don’t lose their democratic rights the moment they punch the clock or pull into the company parking lot.

Missouri voters recently turned out big time for having a collective voice on the job through strong unions. By an overwhelming 2-1 margin, they said the deceptively named “right to work” (the basis of the Janus case) is wrong for America. The Missouri vote put the political establishment on notice that we’re tired of a rigged system that for decades has been favoring corporations, the mega-wealthy and the privileged few.

Those voters understand that unions are not just the manifestation of democracy in our workplaces. They are also the most reliable path to the middle class. In a union, people can exercise their most fundamental rights to negotiate over wages, benefits, and working conditions. Union members earn on average $204 more per week than workers who do not have the power of a collective voice on the job. That’s over $10,000 more per year. What could be more fair and democratic than that? In fact, it is through majority representation that workers have a strong enough voice to level the playing field with employers. And that terrifies the wealthy corporate and partisan interests behind the Janus case.

Since its beginnings, the labor movement has stood for shared prosperity. From combatting sweatshops and child labor, to championing the 40-hour work week, social security, the minimum wage and the prevailing wage, it’s always been about protecting the common interests of all workers.

This election year, we cannot turn a blind eye to further attempts to undermine these victories. From voter registration efforts to ballot campaigns, union members will continue to work hard to make sure workers are fully engaged and represented in our country’s democratic process.

Meet the Author
That’s why our movement is growing, despite these unrelenting attacks by wealthy special interests. 262,000 new union members signed up in 2017, three-quarters of them under the age of 35. And it’s why we’ll keep standing up for working people, and winning. Because the fate of our democracy, and the strength of our middle class, depends on everyday people having a voice — not just on Beacon Hill or in the halls of Congress, but in their workplace.

Steven Tolman is the president of the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts.