The future of labor unions is inextricably linked to the future of the middle class, as The Bee noted in its Sept. 3 editorial "To rebound, labor needs to adapt to a new era."
Unfortunately, The Bee's prescriptions for a stronger labor movement failed to acknowledge the complexity of challenges unions face today. The Bee also perpetuated a narrow view of unions we see all too often in the media, leaving readers with an unfair and inaccurate representation of what we stand for.
Myriad factors have led to the decline of labor unions in the private sector. But no discussion of this decline is complete or even valid without noting the incredible difficulties workers encounter when trying to join a union today.
In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated to Congress that "the rights of employees freely to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining should be fully protected." Problem is, in today's corporate-dominated America, that's not the reality.
According to American Rights at Work, when faced with organizing drives, 25 percent of employers illegally fire at least one pro-union worker; half threaten to close a worksite if the union prevails; and nine out of 10 force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors.
In other words, weak labor laws mean workers don't have much of a chance to join a union anymore. And we can't address the generational gap in union membership unless labor law is strengthened to give young people a path to a union job.
Another major factor in the drop of unionization is the alarming decline of American manufacturing. It's rather ironic that The Bee cited unions' unwillingness to embrace flawed trade policy in its critique. In fact, flawed trade policy has directly led to the outsourcing of millions of union manufacturing jobs.
Unions aren't against trade and don't blame foreign workers for the exodus of manufacturing, as The Bee asserted. We are against unfair trade policy put in place by politicians both Democratic and Republican to benefit multinational corporations at the expense of workers.
Weak labor standards in trade agreements give multinational corporations incentive to move manufacturing overseas. As a result, we have a $400 billion trade deficit, oppressive working conditions abroad and fewer middle-class jobs at home. That must change if we're to rebuild the economy from the middle class out.
The Bee asked a question central to the future of unions: What do unions stand for today?
It's a fair question with a basic answer: Whether we represent workers in the public sector or private sector, we stand unequivocally for advancing the interests of workers. And that's not limited to those with a union card.
The California Labor Federation's two biggest legislative victories this year were not limited to supporting our own members. Unions were a driving force behind the Homeowners Bill of Rights legislation that protects families from unfair foreclosures and bipartisan workers' compensation reform that gave $860 million more to injured workers while reducing costs for businesses. And there are many other examples, from fighting for paid family leave and the minimum wage to overtime pay and meal breaks on the job.
Unions aren't perfect. We're always striving to better adapt to a changing workforce and new economic reality. But in a time of historic economic challenges, unions whether we represent teachers, electricians or grocery clerks are a last line of defense. The great American middle class didn't just happen. It was built, brick by brick. It was built by our parents and grandparents and the unions that represented them, which created the 40-hour workweek, paid holidays, health care and retirement benefits, and wages that were once the envy of the world.
But now that middle class is being systematically dismantled. It's being dismantled by Wall Street bankers and their lobbyists. It's being dismantled by CEOs who demand lavish salaries and bonuses for themselves but deny the rights of their workers to negotiate a living wage for a hard day's work. The only thing that stands in their way today is the same thing that stood in their way in our grandparents' generation: working people standing together.
If we're to have a thriving middle class again, unions must be central to the equation.