OPINION: Unions are the backbone of our country


Photo credit/ Jennifer Flynn

Organized labor, or unions, have been the voice for the working class since the Industrial Revolution. In the current labor climate, workers’ rights have been portrayed by anti-union advocates as greed based or unwarranted. The Fight For $15, a group focused on unionizing the service sector and a $15 an hour minimum wage, has been advocating for a federal minimum wage increase for 10 years, and while they have seen marginal success, their overarching goal is still seen as unachievable. Despite this, most of the benefits given to workers would not be possible without unions, and the only way to ensure a better workforce in this country is to expand union numbers and workplace protections.

There is a lot that we take for granted that unions have provided. Since the mid 1800s, organized labor has won rights for workers like the weekend, the eight hour work week, and vacation and sick time off. The labor movement was also instrumental in instituting a federal minimum wage as a part of FDR’s New Deal, which revitalized the economy out of the Great Depression. It’s important to remember that without the labor movement, the exploitation of workers would be far worse than it is today.

Most of the public opposition to unionization (only 32%, according to this 2021 Gallup poll) seems fostered by union busting tactics deployed by corporations. Anti-union language is used to intimidate workers, or create a false narrative that unions don’t help workers. A common tactic is to give marginal concessions like a small pay increase to defer unionization. Although illegal, there are countless examples of pro-union employees being terminated for fabricated reasons. It’s important to remember that under U.S. labor laws, workers have the right to discuss wages, to unionize and to talk about unionization.

Unionization rates in the United States have seen a decline since the 1980s. In 1983, The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 20% of U.S workers were in a union. That number steadily declined through 2013, where only 11% of workers were in a union. This decline was the result of federal laws, outsourcing jobs for cheaper labor, and record unemployment in the 1980s. Thankfully, unionization has increased to 17% in the last year.

While this system isn’t perfect, as independent contractors are not protected by federal law, unions have been a driving force for ensuring that workers are protected and not exploited by their employers. Private sector employers have been fighting against unionization of their companies for decades.

Recently, two labor movements have been chipping away at Amazon and Starbucks’ exploitation of their workers.

The first unionized Amazon warehouse celebrated its victory in the fight to unionize on April 1. This was huge, as earlier attempts to unionize at Amazon fell flat. Amazon has a reputation for mistreating and overworking its employees, and this union will lay the groundwork for other employees at the world’s third largest corporation to reclaim their rights and eliminate the exploitative practices that Amazon uses, like limiting bathroom breaks and overworking their employees to the point of exhaustion or death. This election success is being appealed by Amazon, however, and its outcome is not final.

Starbucks employees have unionized widely after the first store in Buffalo unionized earlier this year. Sixteen stores have voted to unionize and others are organizing across the country. CEO Howard Schultz utilized union busting language to intimidate employees against unionizing, dangling employee benefits that may not apply to unionized workers as a way to dissuade them from further labor organization.

These large scale union victories are critical to the future of the labor movement. Employees should feel empowered to demand their needs be met by their employers. The only reason that billion-dollar corporations should be scared of unions is if they are exploiting their employees (which most of the time they are).

At the end of the day, unions are the best thing the working class can have to protect themselves from being mistreated. One key thing to remember is that workers are always at the mercy of their employers, who are always looking for their own corporate interests. Worker solidarity is the primary way to support the labor movement, aside from unionizing. The strength of the working class outweighs the strength of corporate interests by a longshot, and creating a better, more sustainable and worker friendly environment is the way forward through the power of unions.

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