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The Vital Importance of Strong Trade Unions

 Strong Trade Unions are Vital        Gerry OShea

During my working years, I recall a female colleague named Catherine coming to my office on the verge of tears. I was taken aback to see her in such a vulnerable state because our relationship had never advanced beyond a professional acquaintance. She apologized for her surprise visit and her distressed state.

 Really distraught, she started talking about her father who, at 71, had just taken a job filling shelves in a supermarket. This decision was driven solely by economic necessity because he could not cover his bills every month.

Catherine opened up with her family story. She was the second of three daughters raised in the rent-controlled apartment in the East Bronx, where her father still lived. Her mother died eight years earlier after all three sisters finished college and moved away from home.

She described her father as a determined, hard-working man who provided well for his family, including paying the tuition for all three of his children to attend Catholic schools. He worked in a large warehouse in Manhattan and was promoted twice over the years to supervisory positions. His wife did not hold any job outside of the home.

A few of his co-workers led a campaign to unionize the “shop” sometime in the eighties. Her father saw the validity of the case they made for better salaries and especially for pension benefits for retirees, but, at heart, he was a company man with a great deal of influence on younger workers, and he declared against the proposal to organize, which was narrowly defeated.

Catherine and I share membership in the United Federation of Teachers, and she mentioned our union's lengthy negotiations for a good retirement package. By comparison, she explained tearfully that her father was dependent solely on his monthly social security cheque to cover his rent, food, and car maintenance.

The three sisters offered to supplement his monthly government allowance, but he firmly rejected this idea. He settled reluctantly for donning the brown employee work coat and filling the shelves in a nearby supermarket—35 hours a week, $12 an hour.

 In an emotional family meeting the previous weekend, he conceded that he was gravely mistaken in promoting the company line during the drive for unionization. Reflecting on those days, he now sees the position he espoused as a big error in judgment. He regrets that he fell for the management palaver when his own clear interests would have been served by aligning with the trade union drive.

The economic advantages of belonging to a union are clear.  Members enjoy higher wages and better benefits than nonunion workers. Studies reveal that union households have nearly four times the wealth of their nonunion counterparts.

About two-thirds of Americans approve of membership in labor unions, the highest level for seventy years, and over 90% of people under 30 support strong unions. Yet only one in ten workers in the United States carries a union card.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), during the 25 years after the Second World War – up until 1970 – workers’ pay increased in line with improvements in production, resulting in substantial growth in the middle class. However, from 1979 to 2020, while productivity surged by 61.8%, worker pay packets increased by just 17.5%.

During the 1950s and 1960s, about 20% of private company employees were unionized, which had a real impact on the salaries and working conditions not only of union members but also on other employers who felt pressure to match the negotiated agreements in organized workplaces.

Since the 1980s, powerful and well-funded employer groups spread the message of needed subservience to the company owners and investors. They preach about the financial risks they take and how sensible workers must realize that they are lucky to have a job with a guaranteed weekly salary.

Big Daddy sits in the top office with his leadership team, dictating policy without any formal consultation with elected workers’ representatives. Salary increases are announced not after negotiations but entirely at the boss’ discretion.

EPI research shows that de-unionization has been a significant factor in the surge in inequality and the decline of the middle class during the last forty years. Working people are now losing about $200 billion every year because of the erosion of union power, with that money being redistributed upwards to the top 5% who continue to live on clover to the detriment of ordinary employees.

Such avaricious corporate greed explains current efforts by Amazon, Starbucks, Tesla and other powerful corporations to crush unionization drives. The law is clearly on the side of the companies whose goal is to pay their employees the minimum that they can get away with.

It is vital for Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act which affirm the right of workers to bargain collectively. I hope that readers of this column call their Washington representatives to determine where they stand on these vital pieces of pro- worker legislation.

Research covering the last ten years reveals that 52% of workers don’t have a contract a year after voting for unionization. This is a disgraceful statistic that reveals the widespread corruption of the whole process, favoring employers at every turn.

At its core, this is a moral issue. Nearly every pope since Leo X111’s famous encyclical Rerum Novarum has affirmed in the strongest terms employees’ rights to a just wage and benefits.

According to the sainted John XX111 in his encyclical Mater et Magistra, employees are entitled to part ownership and profit sharing in the company where they provide their labor.

When last did you hear a sermon dealing with these crucial moral issues?

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking


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