OPINION: Union popularity is at an all-time high — so what now?

We must prioritize organizing; leadership is the key

United Food & Commercial Workers Local 655

There was a rare moment of good news (last) month, and it has significant implications for the future of all working people.

A new Gallup poll found that 68 percent of all Americans approve of Labor unions, the highest level recorded since 1965. This is objectively good news. It’s also encouraging to hear that this number is driven in part by a high approval among younger workers, who are more likely to be engaged in issues related to economic justice and are more likely to approve of things like higher minimum wages and better protections from discrimination at work.

While this is good news, it’s also a call to action. Let me just be blunt: if Labor unions squander this moment, we will wither and die, and we will deserve it.

More than two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, but only about 10 percent of the population are current union members. If we cannot use this approval of Labor unions to expand union density and see the remarkable economic benefits that come along with it, then we have failed as a Movement. So what are the challenges? Why do so many approve of unions while so few are members?

As President Truman said, the buck stops here.

It stops with Labor leaders like myself. We have a responsibility to prioritize organizing workers and helping them join unions. If we do not live up to that responsibility, we should not be leaders.

Complacency has been a problem too-often in Labor unions, especially among leadership. I don’t say this to pick a fight or throw stones at any particular person or organization, but every single union president and leader needs to understand that this is the time to focus on growing the size and strength of our unions.

I’m happy to say we’re already moving down that path at Local 655.

As many of you know, we are currently in the midst of hiring several staffers, and my belief is that some of those staffers will likely be dedicated to full-time organizing efforts across the state. This is the right time to organize and not just because of this recent poll.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the way the American workforce behaves. More and more, employers are struggling to find employees, and it’s not because Americans are lazy. It’s because jobs that were hailed as “frontline workers” or “heroes” are not providing enough value to their employees.

These public-facing jobs — many of them in the service sector or in retail — come with significant contact with the general public during a pandemic that simply will not quit. Workers are finally beginning to understand their power, and we’ve seen more and more companies forced to raise their starting wages or improve benefits in order to staff their operations.

Some of our own union employers have been faced with similar problems, and the renewed demand from employees for better compensation and benefits will not fall on deaf ears in this union when the time comes to bargain our new contracts.

As workers begin to finally see their value, they are slowly beginning to see that it’s time to use their value to leverage the better life they’ve worked so hard for.

This is why it’s so important for union leaders and staff to clearly and loudly demonstrate their value. We can’t simply talk the talk; we have to walk to the walk.

We must clearly show non-union workers benefits of union membership – wages, healthcare, generous pension benefits, which are critical as the workforce continues to age and retiring with dignity becomes an important priority, and protection from unfair treatment or outright discrimination on the job. Whether it’s keeping workers from being fired by managers that have chosen to target them unfairly — or ensuring that no union worker in Missouri is fired for being LGBTQ – their union contract is the only legal protection they have against discrimination. Unions protect hard-working men and women from unjust terminations and unfair discipline.

This is all good, but it will not matter in the long run if we do not clearly demonstrate those values and benefits to the non-union men and women of this nation. Knowing that the public is, broadly speaking, on our side might make this a little easier, but it is only with focused leadership and hard work on the ground that we can pivot this good news into better lives for all workers.

If you’re a member of a union that you believe must do more to organize, call your leadership and hold them accountable.

We cannot squander this opportunity. We cannot afford to lose the trust of the public. We cannot allow the American worker to continue to suffer.

Union Proud — now and forever.

(This is an excerpt from a message Brother Cook sent to his members last month.)

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