This is Why Unions Matter

Many are saying that the battle in Wisconsin is, at long last, shedding some much needed light on the critical role unions play in our economy and in the lives of real working people. If that’s actually so, I’d say it’s high time.

A few recent insights on the subject that are well worth taking to heart. First, from Kevin Drum, writing in Mother Jones:

Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they’re on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They’re the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.

Robert Reich, who blogged two years ago on the reasons unions are so central to the health of our economy:

The American middle class isn’t looking for a bailout or a handout. Most people just want a chance to share in the success of the companies they help to prosper. Making it easier for all Americans to form unions would give the middle class the bargaining power it needs for better wages and benefits. And a strong and prosperous middle class is necessary if our economy is to succeed.

Mik Moore, on unions and the 21st century Jewish community:

Warren Jacobson is the president of the Madison chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. He is middle class. Conservative. Mid-Western. And for 18 years, a union member and government worker.

In 2010, he voted for Scott Walker. But when asked by a JTA reporter if he supported the Governor’s effort to effectively neuter the state government employees’ union, he said no. He had experienced anti-Semitism and discrimination. Unions might not be perfect, he acknowledged, but:

“I want someone supporting me.”

His statement is a powerful distillation of why unions remain vital. Without a union, each worker is on his or her own. They must fend for themselves. And more often than not, they will lose…

We are fooling ourselves if we think unions are no longer important to maintaining and growing the large Jewish middle class. They are. Jacobson is more typical than we realize.

And finally, Rabbi Jill Jacobs offers a trenchant historical reminder in Religion Dispatches:

Almost exactly a century ago, on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames, killing 146 people, mostly immigrant women workers. The management had locked exit doors and stairwells to prevent workers from leaving early. As a result, workers trying to escape the fire were forced to jump from as high as the tenth floor, or simply to wait and smolder to death.

At a gathering in the Metropolitan Opera House a few days after the fire, labor organizer Rose Schneiderman rallied the crowd with the following words:

“Every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us… I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.”

Schneiderman understood that more was at stake in the days following the catastrophe than fire safety regulations. Instead, she argued that only a strong union movement would guarantee workers a safe and dignified workplace in the long run…

Governor Walker and his billionaire supporters are on the verge of destroying the labor movement in America. If that happens, workers will lose most negotiating power, wages will fall, and many more of us will lose our health insurance and other benefits. If Rose Schneiderman were here today, she would tell us, “It’s up to us to save ourselves.”

13 thoughts on “This is Why Unions Matter

  1. Nancy Bruski

    A critical element of this attempt to destroy unions is to wipe out the last remaining vestige of Democratic fundraising and organizing sources. The large public employee unions have been a major source of support for Democratic candidates over the years. If the unions can be crushed, then the only competition to the front groups such as Americans for Prosperity, funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, will be progressive groups such as, whose funding is tiny in comparison.
    This would truly hasten the end of our democracy by ensuring that the Democratic message would be drowned out by the power and resources of the giant corporations. This is partly responsible for the horrendous outcome of the 2010 elections…and if you liked that, just wait for the millions that will be spent against Democrats in 2012. It’s frightening!

  2. Bill

    All good points, effectively made. For me, with a family of teachers able to effectively stand on their own two feet, I struggle with a coalition of public and private sector unions. Two different animals, in my mind. Interestingly enough, the reinstitution of public sector unions was done buy President Kennedy via EXECUTIVE ORDER. Imagine that – a Democrat in the White House realized how much his party depended upon union votes/dollars and decided it might be a pretty good idea to reinstate the right for public employees to organize, something FDR is on record as seeing as not so good. Didn’t happen as an act of the people/Congress, etc. Private yes – and needed. Public – a problem area for any number of reasons. Tough to justify top wages AND job security AND bargaining rights AND generous retirement paid for by the public AND – well, you get the idea. Show me where I’m wrong/out of line.

  3. Miriam

    It is nice, on this blog, to see such support of unions. As a high school teacher, the atmosphere is grim and very scary. Daily, we hear that teachers are not ‘being held accountable,’ and with tenured teachers being fired as a scare tactic while being told it is because of the budget, one does not need to do much work to see that this isn’t true. If teachers were treated with the daily respect that they deserve and listened to as the ones in the trenches with the students, the public school system in this country might have turned out differently. Thank goodness, in the meantime, for our union.

  4. Shirley Gould

    A situation such as this emphasizes that people do not have a memory of events that happened before they were born. The history of the union movements in the U.S. is replete with attacks, bloodshed, tragedy, all to keep the working people down and under control. The gains that unions have made did not come easily and should not be forfeited.

  5. Pingback: As Unions Go, So Goes The Middle Class | Homebrewed Theology

  6. Toni Gilpin

    Hello Rabbi Rosen — I was just forwarded your excellent blog post and you might also want to know that at the Democratic Party of Evanston we’ve been having the same discussions. In order to reach out to those who may not understand why it’s so important to defend unions right now, we’ve produced “Why Unions Matter,” a succinct briefing paper on the subject which can be found here: We also have it available as a printable 1page (back to back) pdf, which you can find at the bottom of that link, if you or anyone else might want to distribute it. Clearly we’re on the same page on the union issue, since we’re even coming up with more or less the same titles for our writings on this subject.

  7. Clif Brown

    I’ve done my share of advocacy for unions. I was a union member (CWA) and even hosted the Labor Beat radio show on WLUW in Chicago several years back, but I do have reservations.

    In my experience, the “living wage” argument of unions doesn’t hold up. Once established, unions don’t open their arms wide to the mass of unemployed, rather they protect their membership, in particular their senior membership, while limiting the number of employees who are brought in. Unlike the early union days when many were committed communists or socialists with a view to change society, today’s union members have no driving ideology – just the desire for job protection even when the work disappears and the job is not justified.

    Seniority is everything and there is a real revulsion to any differential treatment of employees by the company. Unions are anti-meritocracies and there can be real resentment and abuse of members who do more than the contract requires. The peg that stands up is hammered down, accused of “sucking up” to management, etc. There were many times I was directly told not to do something that needed to be done and that I was able and willing to do, simply because it would violate a union rule – though the situation demanded immediate action and the action could be easily performed.

    Public agency unions can (and have) run away with the store because they sit across a bargaining table from politicians, not company lawyers with orders to yield nothing. The politicians, since they are using public money (not their own) and will not remain in office to face the consequences of their decisions often take the easy way and concede to union demands. No strike occurs, the constituency that would be furious if a strike denied services will doze on and soon the politician is gone, leaving the public holding the lavish retirement/medical benefit bag.

    Across the nation in states and cities the same story is told – unfunded pension liabilities have sunk the ship and those who signed the collective bargaining agreements decade after decade are long gone. Nobody can be held responsible so, with profound apologies, your pocket and mine must be picked as is the case with Governor Quinn raising our taxes. This never happens with private companies – they go bankrupt if such behavior is tolerated.

    Lest we forget, unions held the people of the United States up for outrageous demands at the zenith of their power in the big union coal mining and railroading days…even bringing the country to a halt on occasion – damn the “working people” the union members wanted their demands met! Look up the word “featherbedding”.

    Please, no romantic notions about unions! They aren’ t our salvation.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Who’s harboring “romantic notions” about unions? I just quoted an article that said that unions have “pathologies.”

      My point is not to paper over the problems with unions. The issue here is that there is politically motivated union busting going on across our country. God knows that businesses and corporations have their pathologies – but no one ever suggests that we bust the corporate infrastructure in this country because of them.

  8. Clif Brown

    Brant – I agree with you entirely on your last sentence and that is where all our energies should go. Rather than try to rebuild unions, we need to attack the problems that they could not solve (only salve) – to not only bring more responsibility to the corporate world but to find a way to redistribute income that doesn’t simply go to another powerful group that protects its own. You’ve identified a problem that has never been successfully addressed – how to restrain money power in both private and public (political) life. Liberty and justice for all don’t mean much when wealth rides the country like a horse.

  9. Pingback: From the archive of struggle: Rosemary Feurer’s Labor History Links « Poumista

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