We’re celebrating Labor Day, but doing it without a parade or a picnic. The annual events are canceled, along with union barbecues and get-togethers. The Labor Day parade in Wilmington, where many of our local affiliated unions march, has been a great show of strength. Thousands of union members carry banners and send a message: We stand together.
This has been a challenging time since the Coronavirus pandemic struck. Our jobsite safety standards, already strict, have gotten even tougher. That’s helping to limit exposure to the virus among union members and their families. And we hope that paves the way to reopen all of society—to meet again at the parade on Monday, Sept. 6, 2021.
We’re essential workers and we’re proving it every day.
That’s what a union is about: Showing up.
Showing up at the job site, ready to work. At the local meeting, ready to volunteer for a committee or to help others. At a food bank, packing boxes. At City Councils and school boards, ready to testify for a project that will generate good union jobs.
That’s the union difference. A union encourages members to be active. A union wants people to participate. That’s why so many of us march on Labor Day. Those actions lead directly to changing minds and changing votes.
But in the United States, union membership has become an activity for the few, not the majority. Overall, 10.3 percent of Americans are in or represented by unions. In California, we’re in better shape, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We have 2.72 million Californians represented by unions, the highest number in the country. Percentage-wise, we rank seventh of the 50 states, with 16.5 percent of workers represented. In construction, California does better than the national numbers, too.
What else did the report say? That the average non-union worker makes 84 percent of what a union worker makes.
“Over a lifetime, union workers are making at least 16 percent more than non-union.”
Over a lifetime, union workers are making 16 percent more than the non-union. Every year of their careers, from start date to retirement. That’s what our activism gets us. You’d think with this clear advantage, people would be lining up to get in a union. And they are—half of non-union workers say they’d join a union in a heartbeat.
But there simply aren’t enough union jobs for all the people who want them.
In the 1950s, union membership was 35 percent. In 1983, 20.1 percent of workers were in unions. It’s declined every year since then. Major industries left the United States for a better deal for them offshore, one that takes advantage of cheap labor, substandard working conditions and no environmental standards.
I’d say we’ve bottomed out, so let’s reverse this trend and get those numbers up.
The fields where jobs have grown, such as food service, have historically had very low union membership. Today, less than 2 percent of restaurant workers are in a union. There are plenty of reasons they’re not in unions. The laws in this country protecting workers’ rights to form unions are weak. Some voters are prejudiced against unions. And they in turn elect lawmakers who don’t care about working people.
We’re seeing the sad results of this cut in union density. In the past 30 years, much more wealth has gone to a small number of people in our society than to the majority of working people. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009.
You see this problem in the intense debates about unemployment insurance during the pandemic. The U.S. Senate left for vacation instead of trying to resolve this issue. Clearly, they don’t understand what working families are going through. And what it also shows is that these families don’t have the assets to last more than a few days without a paycheck.
Yes, that 16 percent difference in pay for union vs. non-union really adds up. Thousands of dollars, over several decades. And along with that higher pay comes high-quality, secure health insurance, and a pension too.
Many of our members know exactly what it’s like to work non-union. They did so before they had the chance to join our unions. I have never, in my 40 years in the Building Trades, heard someone say they’d like to go back to being non-union. No. Never.
There is no time like right now to be involved in our unions. Let’s do everything we can to grow our unions, and in true Building Trades tradition, give every worker a shot at union membership.