Could we see a resurgence of unions in America? If Sunday’s pronouncement from President Biden is any indication, that indeed could be coming to fruition.
At 8:01 p.m., Biden posted his speech on Twitter where he took the side of labor in the union election in Bessemer, Alabama, at the Amazon warehouse that currently employs around 6,000 workers. While he didn’t mention Amazon by name, nor did he tell the employees how they should vote, he reminded those workers that they had every right to vote their conscience.
He also made sure to put Amazon management on notice that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences.”
The right to collectively bargain in this country may have finally gotten a shot in the arm that’s been missing for nearly 40 years. Finally, a president who realizes the importance of unions as an overall positive to our economy – not the pariah label it’s been tagged with, mostly from the Republican Party and their big-time corporate sugar daddy donors.
While union membership began declining slightly in the 1960s, the steep drop started to accelerate in the 1980s and has continued to this day, especially as it pertains to the private sector. While public sector membership remained relatively steady since those days, the private sector has not. In 1983, total union membership in the United States was 20.1%, 36% public vs. 16.8% private. Flash forward to 2020, and full membership plummeted to 10.8%, 34.8% public vs. 6.3% private.
While demonization of unions was nothing new, it gained a new and sustained shot in the arm when President Ronald Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers in 1981 during the PATCO strike. It sent a message to corporate America that they had a new friend in the White House. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen the enormous drop in membership since Reagan’s action. We cannot discount the noise from right-wing media either, mostly rants by Rush Limbaugh and others, who constantly berated and ridiculed unions for years.
In other words, what a president says matters. He sets a tone from the bully pulpit and can send whatever message he wants to convey. Reagan firing the controllers showed us how he felt about unions. Biden, too, with his straight-forward and brief speech Sunday, showed us his as well.
More Biden: “Unions built the middle-class,” he said. “I made it clear when I was running that my administration’s policy would be to support union organizing and the right to collectively bargain. I’m keeping that promise.”
He’s correct. Unions did build the middle-class, and I can attest to that fact. My father spent 40 years in a union at Goodyear Aerospace, and later Loral Corp., then Lockheed Martin. He made a decent wage and had terrific benefits that helped sustain him and my mother well into retirement. We were not rich when I was growing up, but we never lacked anything either. We always had food on the table, went on vacation nearly every year, and both of my parents could afford a new car every few years.
Not only did my father have a pension that gave him monthly payments until he died in 2004, but his medical benefits continued for my mother until she passed in 2017. I’ll never forget picking up a prescription for her at the local pharmacy a few years before she died. Her cost for the medication? One dollar. My father’s union was responsible for that. Even after he was long retired, the union fought tooth and nail for present and future retirees’ benefits.
And he never let me forget how much the union did for him and my mother, especially when I had the gall to say something negative. He’d remind me how the ‘white shirts,’ – it’s what he called the workers in the office – always bitched and complained about how the union would get sweetheart deals from the company, but never complained when they received increased benefits because of union efforts.
He walked the picket lines whenever they needed him to, and some of the bargainings were contentious, to say the least, especially in the 1970s and 80s. But in the end, the company and the workers would get a deal done. That’s how it worked then, and it’s how it works today when there is collective bargaining between workers and companies.
But these days, that kind of bargaining is few and far between. We’ve heard a lot in recent years about wealth inequality. And it’s no secret that you can trace declining union membership to the decline in workers’ wages overall, especially since the 70s and 80s. People who work in unions have better pay and benefits, on average than workers who do not.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, union members had median weekly earnings of $1,095, while non-union members had median weekly earnings of $892. And in most cases, the benefits of union members surpass those of their non-union counterparts.
The time has come to have a national discussion on whether unions can and should make a substantial comeback. What happens over the next month with the vote to unionize or not in Bessemer, Alabama, will undoubtedly give us an idea of where we might be heading. The workers may vote against collective bargaining. Unions are still very much a dirty word in the South, so it’s unclear whether they will succeed here.
But our new president of the United States has decided to weigh in at a time when some are saying unions have long ago outlived their usefulness in our American economy. He’s thrown down the gauntlet if you will. Previous Democratic presidents have not gone this far in coming down on the side of collective bargaining, at least not since the days of LBJ.
While not decrying unions, Biden’s Democratic predecessors’ support for them has been tepid, at best. Maybe we’re entering a new phase. Biden talked a lot about wealth inequality during the campaign and thinks that supporting workers and their right to unionize can be a catalyst for wage growth and equality.
It won’t be easy for Biden to change the narrative about unions in this country. They’ve gotten a bad rap for a long time now. We know he’ll never get Republicans in Congress to go along either. But the step he took on Sunday was a big ($*$#*NG) deal. It may have gotten lost on many in the national media, what with so many other challenges ahead. But it’s a start.
Now we’ll see whether the workers at Amazon in Alabama decide to do something even more challenging. Maybe we’re at a reflection point. Perhaps the American worker thinks that when someone like Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, and a few others like him, make more money than the bottom 50% of the population, something has to change. Something’s out of whack, and it’s been out of whack for far too long.
It could be that unions are ready for a comeback. It seems as though President Biden agrees.