OPINION: America needs ‘Unions for All,’ whatever their job


We need serious plans to empower all workers to form unions, no matter what job they do. It’s a litmus test for 2020 candidates

Service Employees International Union

America’s Labor laws were established 84 years ago on the basis of a racist compromise. And these laws, which were incomplete when they were written, are now completely useless to millions of workers — black, brown and white — who are demanding a union on the job.

The landmark 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which among other things was meant to “encourage collective bargaining,” was written for a different economy when manufacturing was the biggest industry. And to satisfy the demands of white supremacists in Congress, it excluded agricultural, domestic and various other service workers from the very start, as they were industries dominated by women and people of color.

In today’s economy, millions of other Americans — including gig or app-based workers, so-called independent contractors and some public sector employees — are denied union rights under federal law.

Today, according to our research at the Service Employees International Union, a staggering share of all workers in the country — up to 45 percent — are legally excluded from the right to bargain collectively. It’s time to update our laws to fit an economy where most people work in service jobs.

That’s why members of our union — two million people who are janitors, health care workers and public service workers — are calling on all candidates for president to put forward serious plans to empower all workers to form unions, no matter what kind of job they do.

We are looking for more than lip service from political candidates and elected leaders about how much they support the broken laws we already have. Instead, we need big ideas about how to empower more people to join together in unions so everyone, no matter where they live or work, can negotiate for things like better pay, more affordable health care and more family-friendly schedules.

Demand for joining a union is at a four-decade high: Nearly half of all nonunion workers in the United States now say they would join a union if they could, according to a recent survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And a solid majority of all Americans today say they support unions.

Workers across the country are demanding unions and fair contracts in a way I’ve never seen in my 40-year career in the Labor Movement. They include public school teachers from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Los Angeles. Amazon workers. Stop & Shop workers. Childcare workers. Cooks and cashiers at McDonald’s and other companies across the $200 billion fast-food industry.

That’s why our endorsement in the 2020 election will be conditioned on support for “Unions for All,” a bold agenda to give working people more power in our society. Our demand for Unions for All is focused on four big changes.

  • Industry-wide bargaining: We want the next president to use the power of the Oval Office to bring employers, workers and their unions together at industry-wide bargaining tables to negotiate pay, benefits and working conditions nationwide, with government involvement, where necessary, to help close the huge income inequality gap.
  • Empower states: Give states and cities the freedom to innovate and create new laws that empower workers to organize in a union more easily than federal law allows.
  • $15 minimum wage: Government should use its spending power to require that any job funded by taxpayer dollars pays at least $15 an hour and allows workers to join together in a union for a bargaining process that can truly improve their lives.
  • Union jobs focus: Any major economic proposal — including plans for universal health care or the “Green New Deal” — must put good union jobs at the center.

Democrats are already taking notice. We’ve seen Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas propose bold solutions to unrig our economy and rewrite our Labor laws, plans that are not just more of the same. We expect more 2020 presidential candidates to follow suit.

“Unions for All” is a demand we are making on behalf of working people who are fighting for their families, not just in our union but all across the country.

Empowering more workers to join unions will give us the power to transform our economy into one where all of us can get ahead, no matter what our color or where we come from.

It’s a demand that will make the right to a union a reality not just for some, but for all.

(Follow Mary Kay Henry on Twitter: @MaryKayHenry. Reprint, USA Today)


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