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Progressives around the country are flocking to see Robert Reich’s new documentary, Inequality for All. In the film, Reich makes a strong case for how unions grow the middle class. So why aren't more people talking about the importance of unions?

As a labor leader, one of my greatest pet peeves is the absence of labor rights from so many discussions about poverty and inequality. I've often joked that too many Democrats and progressives treat "union" like a four-letter word: it is said only in certain company and often under great duress. Heck, even some folks in the labor movement avoid the word, preferring instead to talk about "committees" and "associations".

I know all too well the negative stereotypes associated with unions, but I don’t see how we will ever change those stereotypes and, more importantly, how we'll ever achieve shared prosperity, if we are unwilling to talk about unions. After all, it's not like we've made any progress for workers by skirting the issue. Wages have stagnated, inequality has increased, and the safety net continues to unravel.

If we want that to change, we need to quit letting Corporate America define the narrative and the words we use to tell it.  Too many politicians and pundits on the Left are talking about entitlements and deficits when instead the narrative we should be telling is this: We live in the richest country in the world. America's not broke, but too many of our citizens are. That's why we need to create jobs and raise wages. And it's why we need to allow workers to organize unions and collectively bargain.

It’s not that complicated. Sequestration, debt ceilings, and other big words distract us from the simple reality that most Americans don't earn enough to provide a decent living for themselves and their families and if they did, our whole economy would be better off.  Demand for public assistance would decrease. Consumers would have more money to spend at businesses. Tax revenues would be up for all levels of government. Our economy would work well for everyone.

What’s good for workers is good for business. That seems like such a radical idea only because so few of us say it.  Likewise, unions seem so foreign and potentially scary because so few of us talk about them.

And that’s exactly what the Koch Brothers and right-wing ideologues want.  They want to define unions as bad. CEOs and conservative politicians have long realized that unions give workers a voice not only in the workplace but also at the ballot box and in the policy debate. It’s high time that progressives realized that as well.

So here’s my plea to my fellow progressives:

When you talk about inequality, talk about how unions promote shared prosperity.  Yes, talk about unions, but don’t stop there. Take action to support workers who want the right to organize and collectively bargain. The coming months will present opportunities to support farmworkers, public employees, and workers at Walmart and fast food restaurants in their struggle for justice. Visit to find out how you can get involved.

MaryBe McMillan is Secretary-Treasurer of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, the largest association of local unions and union councils in North Carolina, representing over one-hundred thousand union members, fighting for good jobs, safe workplaces, workers’ rights, consumer protections, and quality public services on behalf of ALL working families.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It's because Unions have been vilified (0+ / 0-)

    And because there is still a lack of trust in Unions that they are not corrupt, controlled by the mob, etc. If Unions are to come back, and begin rebuilding this country, they are first going to have to prove that they can be trusted. Otherwise, I just don't see how we are going to build a working model of opposition.

    •  Trust has to be the pre-condition or initial (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      alice kleeman, Dirtandiron

      condition. It is not something that can be created. Union is a threatening concept to people who assume an antagonistic stance to their environment and who have a vested interest in convincing others that their posture is correct.
      Why do the isolates have that interest? Because they do not know how to connect. Being isolated has to be the norm. Otherwise, they are misfits. Dis-union is in that sense largely a self-protective stance.
      The irony is that individuals who don't perceive themselves as isolates are often quite content to go along with the isolates' agenda. Joiners associate themselves with antagonists, as if it were a mutual admiration society.
      So, for example, Democrats in Congress go along with Republican colleagues without realizing that the latter are incapable of reciprocating.

    •  But so what? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mark Lippman, Dirtandiron

      So what if unions are corrupt? Our government is corrupt, and we don't overthrow it (though we should). And so what if unions are controlled by the mob? They still provide good wages and good working conditions. How does it affect the ordinary working man and women?

      The truth is that we -- because Americans have always admired the wealthy -- have internalized what are really the concerns of employers, making them our own.


    Yes to old-fashioned direct action methods that were used a hundred years ago because they work.

    Unions are real social networks where time isn't wasted.

    There is no existence without doubt.

    by Mark Lippman on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 01:01:38 PM PST

    •  To paraphrase Reich from the movie (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mark Lippman

      If you wanna know what country has done better at addressing inequality, the answer is ours. During the 1930's and 1940's, worker organizing sparked the dawn of a golden age of capitalism where everyone got richer, including the rich. You're right. It does work. We can do it again!

      We believe what's good for workers is good for business! Like that? Join us at

      by NC State AFLCIO on Tue Nov 12, 2013 at 07:20:48 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  "Dollarocracy" complements "Inequality for All" (0+ / 0-)

    What Reich doesn't confront, and should, is the systematic political/legal strategy that the economic and political elites used from the mid-60s to the early 70s to undermine unions' ability to protect workers and bargain wages.

    In their recent book Dollarocracy (2013), John Nichols and Robert W McChesney, long time collaborators and contributors to The Nation, describe the systematic political campaign, conducted in the courts and Congress, to erode union power and our voting rights.

    The two books complement each other. Neither is as strong alone. Both together would provide enough impetus to move the reform agenda. I think it's great that Reich made a movie of his book. I wish he'd call out Nichols and McChesney for having rounded out the political/legal story that goes with his economic analysis.

    "There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires." - President Obama

    by fhcec on Mon Nov 11, 2013 at 01:57:25 AM PST

    •  The irony of opponents of organized workers (0+ / 0-) that they are super organized themselves. Big Business gets it. The Koch Brothers get it. Wall Street gets it. Anti-worker politicians get it. You have to be organized to win.

      And the gross inequality we have in the United States today is, as you say, the product of a concerted, well-organized, well-financed effort to undermine the organized opposition to organized greed.

      Only organized workers can fight organized greed, and it's more important than ever that we talk about how unions have fought back and won in the past and how, working together, we can make those victories happen again.

      We believe what's good for workers is good for business! Like that? Join us at

      by NC State AFLCIO on Tue Nov 12, 2013 at 07:31:39 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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