United We Stand?

by Carolyn Shea

During the 20th century, labor unions played major roles in building a robust middle class in America and forging a more equitable, economically mobile society. They spearheaded battles that gained shorter workweeks, ended child labor, won employer-based health coverage and secured passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Organized labor reached its zenith in the mid-1950s, when it embraced more than a third of the U.S. workforce. Since then, economic, social and political forces have worked to drive down membership, which has slipped to about 11 percent of all workers. In December, legislators in Michigan—a state that has long been at the heart of union activity—joined 23 other states in passing a “right to work” law which removes the requirement for people to pay union dues to work at unionized agencies, effectively decreasing union funding and making it less likely that workers will choose to organize.

Today, labor has lost much of the clout that came with collective bargaining, as well as the power to check the influence of big business. At the same time, nearly 12 million Americans are unemployed, wages are stagnant for most workers and income inequality has expanded to levels not seen since the 1920s.

So are unions relevant today? We talked with three Greeners who play key roles in unions that represent workers in several industries around the country: the National Education Association (NEA), the Teamsters and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA). All spoke about how collective action by labor can bring about change for the better. Unions are in a unique position to “defend democracy, fight for equal opportunity and create a more just society,” says John Stocks ’81, executive director of the NEA. “Unions have to advocate for the greater good.”

“Unions have to respond to the needs of society beyond their membership and enlist in broader movements… They have to advocate for the greater good, the public trust, the broad swath of the majority of Americans who don’t have the kind of power and clout that the one percent has. Unless we can appeal to that, unions will become useless and irrelevant.”

—John Stocks ’81