President Obama must speak out and stand up for labor unions

Hundreds of fast-food workers walked off their jobs and marched in Sacramento last Sept. 4 to press for higher wages and the right to organize unions.
Hundreds of fast-food workers walked off their jobs and marched in Sacramento last Sept. 4 to press for higher wages and the right to organize unions. Sacramento Bee file

Dear President Obama:

No president in the last half century has communicated with such power and eloquence about the issues that matter most to our country.

Who will ever forget the moment you began singing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial for the victims of the Charleston church massacre? Or your stirring call for reconciliation and healing following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords? In an era of unprecedented polarization, your words have served to remind Americans of the values that unite us.

Now the time has come for another speech, Mr. President. As the nation grapples with record levels of economic inequality – a challenge you have called the greatest of our generation – we need a teaching moment on the indispensable role of organized labor in the world’s oldest democracy.

Too many Americans do not understand that unions built the middle class that became the envy of the world – and that the decline of the middle class is directly tied to the demise of unions. Too many Americans do not realize that, even today, workers represented by a union have a far higher standard of living than those who are not. And too many Americans do not know that the labor movement, despite its weakened state, is the single greatest counterforce to unbridled corporate control of our political system.

The influence of big business has already generated the greatest wealth gap since the Great Depression and made the U.S. the most unequal Western nation. The top 20 percent of U.S. households own more than 80 percent of all wealth, while the bottom 40 percent own 0.3 percent. The CEO-to-worker pay ratio is 354 to 1.

Mr. President, this is a perilous time.

The Citizens United ruling has given the super-rich carte blanche to buy our elections. The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering a case that could deal a crippling blow to unions that have enabled tens of millions of government workers to achieve the American dream. Presidential candidates such as Gov. Scott Walker are running on an explicit platform to strip organized labor of its ability to defend the most basic rights of workers. Outsourcing, privatization, temporary labor and independent contractors have all contributed mightily to the steady erosion of wages and benefits.

President Obama, the time for silence is over. We need your voice to educate the vast number of Americans who either think unions are part of the problem on income inequality, or think they are irrelevant to the solution. No one expects you to gloss over the challenges that unions have had. But we do expect you to tell the truth about the critical role unions have played – and must play – in the rebuilding of the middle class.

Tell the country that unions, though imperfect, are vital to our democracy. Explain that unions are responsible for many of the things we cherish most as workers – the eight-hour workday, overtime pay, paid vacation. Make it crystal clear that unless unions reverse their decline, the America of opportunity and equality will wither and die.

Mr. President, teach Americans that if we are to reclaim the dream of a better life for our children and generations to come, every day must be Labor Day.

Cherri Senders of Los Angeles is founder and publisher of Labor 411, a consumer guide to companies that treat their workers fairly.