A new era in American unionism

By Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain

Between 1945 to 1965, America workers’ wages doubled, and between 1965 and 1985, wages almost doubled again. But since 1985, wages have been stagnant. Today, 20 percent of the wealthiest Americans own 86 percent of American wealth: the highest in history. It is should not be a surprise to anyone that the rise and decline in wages tracks with the rise and decline of worker power through union membership. And that is precisely why our workers’ movement is a target.

On Feb. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Janus v AFSCME. A pro Janus decision would eliminate agency fees for nonunion members. The goal of the deep-pocketed backers of Janus is to bankrupt unions and eliminate our political power, resulting in a political and legislative agenda that favors corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy. Their argument is that agency fees for non-members who enjoy all the benefits of a union contract is an unconstitutional act of compelled speech.

The rise of the worker power in the United States was a time of great activism. Strikes were more common and workers who lived through the Great Depression knew what this country was like before the rise of unions: low wages, no pensions, no benefits, and little or no job safety protections. The connection between individual members ran deep with their unions. Prior to payroll deductions, dues were collected through union stewards on a one-on-one basis. Each month, a member would pay their dues and have a one-on-one conversation. That conversation could have been about sports, family, politics and sometimes a union issue. The connection that was forged resulted in a sense of union ownership with members. Today’s unions have reestablished those one-on-one conversations between members and union representatives.

What might a post-Janus world look like? Many believe that the West Virginia teachers’ strike foreshadows a new era in American unionism. As workers become more involved in their unions through increased member-to-member communication, they move toward activism and solidarity. States that have balanced budgets on the backs of public employees are vulnerable to backlash, like we just witnessed in West Virginia. Workers who have become frustrated with a system that victimizes them and their families will look for a vehicle to strike back. That vehicle has and always will be the American union movement.

Our workers’ movement was designed to be a radical counter to capitalism. Today’s economic division between workers and the wealthiest Americans looks more like the 1890s and the early days of the 1900s than anytime in modern history. It was a time of great labor unrest: In the 1890s there were over 20 strikes, and each had a significant impact on our history. Like many workers today, they scratched out a living working several jobs to survive while poverty and homelessness ran rampant. The robber barons of the 1890s, like today, believed that workers were a commodity to be used and discarded.

Workers will only tolerate such abuse for so long before they fight back for the well-being of their families. Pay attention to the workers at Vigor Shipyards who are still fighting for respect on the job and a 40-hour workweek. A pro-Janus decision by the Supreme Court will eventually result in a more militant form of unionism where workers choose to fight back against a system that is rigged for the rich. Our success as we move forward is to ignore those things that separate workers — private versus public, manufacturing versus the building trades — and to support each other on the picket line and in our capitals. We must remember that solidarity equals success.

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