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This Labor Day, remember that unions are about more than just wages

CommentaryOrganized labor does not play the central role it once did in American social, political and economic life.


Organized labor does not play the central role it once did in American social, political and economic life. Though once unions represented over a third of American workers, today they represent barely 12 percent. In the private sector, that number drops to the single digits. As the American workforce has become de-unionized, inequality has spiked, wages have dropped, and the work day has become far more grueling.

Maybe that makes this Labor Day a good time to reflect on what we've lost, and why it matters. To be sure, the numbers I cited above don't look good, but unions also matter for reasons that can't be quantified. They matter because you should have some say in the conditions of your own labor. They matter because you should be free to build communities based off of shared interests, instead of being forced to stand alone.

It often seems that even some of those progressives who are sympathetic to labor don't fully grasp what's at stake. On Sunday's Up With Chris Hayes, for example, Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden offered a defense of the labor movement that was technically accurate but still woefully insufficient.

"If you look at Germany, one of the reasons they're economy is doing better is that they have strong unionization," she said. "It drives up wages, and it creates demand."

If that is the best reason to keep unions around, we might as well do away with them right now. There are, after all, plenty of other ways to increase demand: Expansionary monetary policy, tax credits, debt relief and a higher minimum wage all come to mind. You could even just institute direct cash transfers to middle class and low income Americans.

But unions should do more than just put money in their members' pockets. Wages and benefits matter, but they are not what make the labor movement unique. First and foremost, unionization is important because it promotes freedom, democracy and dignity in the workplace.

Freedom, democracy and dignity: those three concepts have suffered a fair amount of abuse at the hands of political talking heads, especially around election season. But they still mean something, even when the meaning has been obscured. Freedom means being able to say that no one can arbitrarily interfere in your affairs. Democracy means being able to come together as equal members of a shared community, to deliberate on the key decisions affecting you all. And dignity simply means being regarded as a full and equal member of society, entitled and empowered to take charge of your own life.

Higher wages and better welfare alone can alleviate poverty, but it can't make the workplace a free and democratic space. That only comes when workers have a voice in setting the conditions of their labor. Unions are still the most effective vehicle for making that happen; without them, too many workers are at the mercy of their bosses. When every worker is on her own, with no larger democratic institution to turn to, she can never hope to check the whims of management, no matter how arbitrary.

In 1968, when black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee went on strike, they surely did want higher wages. They also wanted better hours, safer equipment, and many other material improvements to their working conditions. However, when those workers marched through the streets of Memphis to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak on their behalf, they weren't carrying signs that said, "Better Wages" or "Help Us Create Demand." Their signs said, in full: "I AM A MAN." Their first demand was to be recognized as human beings, deserving of the same liberty and dignity all people should enjoy.

That's what organized labor should stand for. And in an era of historically low union density and widespread union-busting, that's what many workers stand to lose.