News stories

Unions under attack

What to say when …

… Your brother-in-law asks why union workers should have it so good when most workers are barely scraping by.

Union workers — in both the public and the private sector — do on average make more money than nonunion workers, about 20 percent in wages (30 percent when benefits are included). That’s because they can bargain rather than beg for improvements in wages, benefits and work conditions.

That’s a good thing, not a bad thing! More Americans should have that option.

Throughout the country, wages and salaries overall have stagnated, and unions in the private sector have been decimated. Every worker is entitled to a decent wage, health care and a secure retirement. The solution is to fight for economic security for everyone — that means strengthening the labor movement, not weakening it further.

… Your hairdresser says she doesn’t have a pension so government workers should be willing to accept less generous pensions.

Everyone should have security in their later years. Pension plans were pioneered by unions in collective bargaining and when unions were at their strongest, many nonunion workplaces as well as most union workplaces had pension plans.

These days, a small minority of jobs offer defined-benefit pensions, including most public-sector jobs. Pensions and health care and other benefits are part of compensation; they are negotiated with the employer, and historically public-sector employees often gave up higher wages in exchange for better benefits. But it’s a myth that our pensions are overly generous.

In New York City, the average pension of a retired teacher is $42,000 — hardly the lap of luxury. The overall average of retired city workers’ pensions is a mere $18,000. Nationally it’s $22,000. Taking away pensions from public-sector workers does not help private-sector workers who lack similar protections. We should advocate for extending retirement benefits to those who don’t have them, not take them away from those who do.

… Your neighbor says look around you, there’s a budget crisis, unions need to do their share to help solve it.

It’s important to remember that at their core, the current attacks on public-sector unions throughout the country have nothing to do with budgets and everything to do with workers’ rights. But of course, the budget crises that many states face are real. So are the sacrifices that union members have already made.

In Wisconsin, for instance, workers have agreed to the economic concessions that Gov. Walker has demanded, and they’ve taken 16 furlough days in the last two years. In New York, both state and city unions have negotiated pension savings in the last two years and in 2009 the Municipal Labor Committee reached a deal to help the city save $200 million in health care costs.

Public-sector unions are willing to do their part, but the “shared sacrifice” that many politicians talk about does not include upper-income earners and businesses, which have not been asked to sacrifice. Indeed, in Wisconsin it was Gov. Walker’s tax cuts to businesses that precipitated the budget crisis he is now using as the excuse to attack collective-bargaining rights.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg is opposed to extending the millionaire’s tax. At the same time, he has proposed increasing the sales tax in New York City, a tax that burdens the poor more than the rich because it’s a far greater percentage of their earnings. So he’s not opposed to taxes, just to taxes on the wealthy.

… The guy behind you in line at the post office says unions are only good for union members.

Without the labor movement there would be no weekend. Organized labor fought for all kinds of conditions, regulations and policies we now take for granted, such as the five-day work week, the eight-hour day, child labor laws and Social Security.

Many of the things that unions fight for benefit nonunion workers more than their own members, like minimum wage laws. When unions represent a significant share of workers in a given job sector, it raises standards and working conditions for all workers in that sector.

It’s also true that in a day-to-day way unions help make their workplaces function better through organized, collaborative relationships with management. It has long been documented that states without teacher unions perform worse than their unionized counterparts.

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