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Simply put, a well-functioning democracy needs a strong middle class. Globally strong unions are critical to building a middle class and critical to winning and maintaining democracy. The middle class in this country was built on the foundation of strong unionsincluding the UAW and other manufacturing unions. When the UAW and other manufacturing unions fought and won a middle-class standard of living for our members, public employees, service sector workers and others in society, we were able to greatly improve their standards of living. We need to organize a massive amount of workers to rebuild the middle class, protect our members, and win the social and economic justice all workers deserve.
The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that union density has fallen in recent decades from 20 percent in 1983 to 11.9 percent in 2010. The union membership rate in the private sector is quite dismal and now stands at 6.9 percent. As union density decreases, our bargaining power is weakened because of competition with nonunion lower-wage employers. Less power at the bargaining table means lower wages, worse health benefits and fewer rights. Decreased numbers of union members also means less political clout and less consumer purchasing power. The right to organize and bargain collectively is the key to global economic justice and is the best global anti-poverty program.
The disparity in income in the United States has already shrunk the middle class dramatically, and the median household’s income is lower today than it was 10 years ago. Data show that from 1979 to 2008, income in the United States grew steadily – by an average of $10,401 per capita. Sadly, most of the income growth went to the top 10 percent, and the top 1 percent increased its annual total income by more than $1.1 trillion. While the nation grew substantially wealthier, working families have fallen behind and poverty has increased as the power of unions has decreased.
In the auto, aerospace and agricultural implement industries, the UAW’s density has decreased dramatically. Nonunion manufacturers have set up shop in parts of the United States with historically low levels of union membership and U.S-based auto parts manufacturers have followed suit by moving their production to areas with low union density as well. These workers badly need a voice on the job.
With decreased density, the UAW has less ability to negotiate strong contracts. We have seen stagnant and decreasing wages, more health care costs shouldered by members, and less generous retirement packages. In order to get on the right track, we need to organize all workers in our industries. With higher union density, we will have greater power and win more of the justice that our members deserve.
The biggest obstacle to worker organizing is employer opposition. Well-researched studies have demonstrated the legal and illegal tactics that U.S. employers use to stop organizing.
Effectively, most workers are blocked from exercising their First Amendment rights to engage in freedom of speech and freedom of association by forming unions. Workers understand that they are better off joining unions. According to surveys, more than half of U.S. workers would be in a union if they could.
To make matters worse, anti-worker politicians have attacked collective bargaining rights in a growing number of states and the UAW has been heavily involved in these fights. Unionized workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine, Indiana, Michigan and several other states have been under serious attack. In Washington, anti-worker politicians have also aimed to gut worker protections.
In theory, the right of workers to form unions is protected by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). However, to undermine workers’ rights, many unscrupulous employers and anti-union consultants have exploited the NLRB’s lack of resources and authority.
For example, the UAW had an organizing campaign at the auto parts maker Stabilus in Gastonia, N.C., in 2004. The employer fired several members of the organizing committee, and the union lost the election by a handful of votes. The union should have been able to get the workers reinstated and have another election immediately, but it’s now eight years later and there is still no new election. Meantime, the employer fired more workers who were union supporters and avoided any accountability for their illegal actions. Even when workers who have been fired illegally are reinstated, there are no penalties in labor law. The employer is only obligated to pay for lost wages. That means if an employee is illegally fired for trying to form a union and gets a job that pays comparable wages, the employer has NO financial obligation when the NLRB gets around to ruling several years later.
The guilty employer only needs to offer the illegally fired worker his or her job back.
The future of UAW members is directly linked to the future of nonunion workers. Manufacturers who pay higher wages and provide good benefits and working conditions must not be put at competitive disadvantage for doing the right thing.
Furthermore, the fate of U.S. workers is tied to the fates of workers around the world. This is why we are so concerned about what is happening around the globe and strongly support fair wages and benefits throughout the world. If a part, or even a whole vehicle, can be produced with low wages in China and imported to the United States, production will increase for Chinese workers and American workers will lose their jobs. The same is true for our aerospace and agricultural implement members. The sooner global wages rise to North American labor standards, the better conditions will be for our members in the United States and Canada. This will only happen if we globally support workers’ rights to freedom of association and freedom of speech, and the right to organize and bargain collectively.
Until and unless we win in 2012, the chances for comprehensive labor law reform are remote. However, legislators, who believe that workers should have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association by forming unions, can still do a great deal. They can: