I went down to DC over the weekend for the president’s inauguration and it was truly spectacular. The patriotic pageantry, the soaring rhetoric, the thousands who braved the cold and the DC transit system just to catch a glimpse of history. It was a grand moment for our democracy and a triumphant moment for Democrats who listened with pride as our president outlined his policy agenda. Climate change, immigration reform, gun reform, LGBT equality, women’s rights. Public opinion is moving in our direction on these issues and progress just seems possible.
But even as we celebrate, we must recognize that on another issue. An issue the president made no mention of but which is perhaps the most critical issue for the long term health of our economy, we are not just losing, we’re getting destroyed.
This chart shows the long decline of labor union membership. Just yesterday we received a new and unsurprising data point from the BLS. The number of union members fell by 400,000 last year and overall membership is now at a 97 year low.
Why does this matter?
The implication here is pretty clear. As labor goes, so goes the middle class. And make no mistake, labor is going. Right now we’re locked in a vicious downward spiral. Republicans, driven by corporate money and a cynical zeal for undermining one of the richest sources of Democratic campaign contributions attack labor rights in state after state. Their frequently successful attacks make it harder for unions to organize and lead to fewer people joining unions. With fewer people in unions, there are fewer people who understand the benefits of union membership for themselves and their families. And there are more people to be talked into the Republican caricature of union bosses as boorish thugs and mafia goons. So public support for labor unions declines, allowing Republicans to launch even more successful attacks on labor rights.
Look, I’m the granddaughter of a union sheet metal worker, union coal miner, union teacher, and union postal worker. When you mess with unions it feels personal to me.But it should feel personal for every American regardless of their family history.
The America we know and love is the America we know and love because of unions. They fought for better wages, equal pay and equal rights, worker safety and even the weekend. They continue to fight today for the vision of America articulated so eloquently by the president.
We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
It’s true part of unionism’s problem is big unionism. Buildings, lobbying, and taking members for granted. But what other group with power and money speaks for working people, for the middle class? There isn’t one and that’s exactly why Republicans and corporate interests would like to see unions dead and gone for good.
Time to stop patting ourselves on the back. Time to stop gazing at happy demographic trends. Labor’s fight is our fight: the fight for basic economic fairness. We must awaken to the reality that on every core economic principle we care about, from income inequality, to the war on poverty, to the shrinking middle class, to stagnating wages, we’re losing. And the most powerful force in America for growing the middle class, unions, are being eviscerated. In the words of Samuel L Jackson, time to wake the f*** up.