As negotiators for the Camas teachers’ union and the Camas School District sit down at the bargaining table this week, we’ve been mulling over the history of union membership in this country and feeling inspired by the recent eruption of union activism that goes past simply securing higher wages and better benefits for union members, but fights for “common good” clauses that seek to benefit the entire community.
Take, for instance, the May 2023 teachers’ strike in Oakland, California, where teachers fought not only for less demanding schedules and better salaries, but also for things like securing housing vouchers for homeless families in the district, repairs for classroom HVAC systems, climate change actions and the formation of a task force to look into reparations for Black students and their families.
“When we’re talking about common good proposals, we’re talking about disability justice, we’re talking about racial justice, we’re talking about social justice, we’re talking about schools in the flatlands having a just experience,” a sixth-grade Oakland teacher told KQED in May. “And that’s both in the environment, coming to a school that is welcoming, loving, safe — physically — and also (has) enough resources to actually fully serve those students that are in the building.”
Other union wins this year have included appeals for better wages and stability not just for full-time union employees but also for low-paid part-time workers who often get overlooked in union negotiations. At Rutgers University in New Jersey, for instance, when teachers took to the picket lines in April, they were joined by part-time and adjunct professors as well as graduate students, researchers and counselors.
In Hollywood, the actors’ union has joined a writers’ strike and popular actors have been actively pointing out how entertainment companies have placed shareholder and executive profits over fair pay for the people who actually create the movies and television shows. As Fran Drescher, the president of the actors’ union, said recently, even though most people consider Hollywood actors rich and famous, the majority of actors “are just working people just trying to make a living just trying to pay their rent, just trying to put food on the table and get their kids off to school.”
2023 has been a big year for unions. As the Washington Post pointed out earlier this month, “some 323,000 workers have already gone on strike in 2023, according to Bloomberg Law data, making it the busiest year for strikes since 2000, with the exception of a wave of strikes by public-sector teachers and state and local government workers in 2018 and 2019.”
When older people in this country think back to “the good old days,” they are likely thinking about times when union membership was strong, when the median cost of home was less than three times the median household income — instead of nearly six times the median income as is the case today — and when the top 1% of households in this country were not making four times as much income as the bottom 20%.
Union membership reached its peak in the U.S. in the 1950s and started dropping off in the 1980s thanks to Reagan-era policies and a swell of anti-union sentiments.
Today, unions represent just 11% of American workers, compared to over 35% in the 1950s and 21% in the late 1970s. And with the decrease in union membership, we’ve also seen a rise in income inequality and more full-time workers struggling to afford homes, food and other basic necessities. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, around 12 million full-time workers in this country rely on federal health care and food-assistance programs. In the richest nation in the world, that should be unconscionable.
Luckily, unions are coming back into vogue as workers realize the benefit of joining together to help themselves and of fighting for those “common good” demands that can benefit their entire community. A 2021 Gallup poll showed the highest support for unions since the mid-1960s, with 68% of Americans saying they were in favor of unions.
As educators and other school employees bargain for better, safer, fairer working conditions and pay, let’s also remember the good unions have brought to our country — from the 40-hour work week and 8-hour work day to safer workplaces, health insurance, paid vacations and protections for people forced to take time off to care for new babies or ill family members.
As new generations realize “trickle down” economics and giving tax cuts to the rich never actually put more money into the hands of the workers but, instead, allowed the richest Americans to amass fortunes so great that, today, an elite group of 31 billionaires are now worth more than the U.S. Treasury has in cash, our youngest workers — as we’ve seen recently with the success of the Starbucks workers who banded together for better working conditions and wages — will be far less likely to buy into the great American myth of rugged individualism and quickly become more amenable to forming unions and organizing their labor to benefit not just themselves, but their entire community.
As the president of the Rutgers educators’ union recently told CounterSpin: “We all know about the incredible social inequality in the U.S., and how it’s getting worse day by day. And the only solution I see for this is greater labor organizing, period.”