THE BLOG

Why Unions Matter

02/06/2014 05:39 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

As parents we tell our children that the key to success and prosperity lies in a good education. We feel we have to. Why? Thirty-five years of globalization and technological revolution have resulted in a rapid decline of the manufacturing and blue-collar jobs that were once the backbone of our economy. These were union jobs that offered good wages, superb health benefits and the security of a pension at retirement. But those jobs are vanishing. With that in mind, we needed our kids to get a college degree so they could find skilled work that paid well.

The state of organized labor in America is changing. And it's not looking good.

Now, millions of un- and underemployed graduates have discovered that a college degree doesn't guarantee a good job. Coupled with the extraordinary spike in college tuition, the flagging economy that welcomed Millennials into the workforce means that not only are our young people graduating with far fewer opportunities for high paying jobs, but they are coming out of college with mountains of debt. The average college loan requires a $290-per-month payback, a figure that lands between seven to 10 percent of a 20 or 30 something's average monthly salary. While the value of education for the sake of learning should never be under-estimated, the reality is that education simply isn't the answer to shared prosperity that many once thought it was.

Millennials have been called civic-minded and entitled, pragmatic-idealists and narcissists. They are the first generation to grow up surfing personal computers and oftentimes the developers of the apps, games and online communities that help us connect to our virtual social circles. It should come as no surprise then that the equal sense of self-worth and community they're known for cultivating directly parallels the ideas that unions have always stood for: an equal voice for everyone; shifts in power from technocratic to democratic; new ways to solve problems, both in and out of the organized structures that contributed to them.

The beauty of the labor movement, and the beauty of the generation now at its fore, is that it's not a fight against business or corporations. The beauty is that a decent standard of living, with the right mix of tenacity and challenge to the status quo that characterizes Millennials, can benefit their families, communities and employers as well -- and at a time when the labor movement needs it most.

Since 1979, American workers' productivity has increased over 80 percent. In that same time, the average income of the top one percent has increased more than 240 percent. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy, it would now be nearly $92,000. It's currently $50,000. The fundamental purpose of a union is to balance the overwhelming power of those who are reaping all those gains in our economy with those who are creating those gains. Far from seeking to undermine the success of those at the top, unions simply insist that that success be shared.

Unions also matter because they're good for business. In "The Good Jobs Strategy," Zeynep Ton, a business professor at M.I.T.'s Sloan School of Management, argues convincingly that "Even the most coldhearted, money-hungry capitalists ought to realize that increasing their work force, and both paying them and treating them better, will often yield happier customers, more engaged workers and -- surprisingly -- larger corporate profits," as Adam Davidson reported recently in New York Times.

It's not surprising to see that where there is worker solidarity there's better pay: median yearly earnings of union members are $47,684 while non-union members' median earnings are $37,284. However, you don't have to be a union member to see the results. Western and Rosenfeld's study on income inequality in the American Sociological Review highlights that in areas where unions are present, even non-union job wages are higher. Or, as historian Kim Phillips-Fein puts it, "The strength of unions in postwar America had a profound impact on all people who worked for a living, even those who did not belong to a union themselves."

Mass unionization is gone, and it's not coming back. But injustice and inequality are still very much here. That's why the tent is opening to new models, from worker centers to Working America. Unions need the next generation to understand the important and transformative role that unions have played in the modern economy, because the next generation of workers possesses the skills to keep wage fairness alive. Unions matter, and it matters that we learn how much they still do.