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 www.aflcionc.org 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.