08/27/2012 03:18 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Unions Matter More Than Ever

When I travel across the country, I often hear from business leaders, politicians, even union members, that unions do not matter anymore. They say there was a time and place for unions, but that era has passed. They cite the fact that union membership in the United States stands at less than 12 percent. They cite the Wisconsin recall, the passage of right-to-work laws in Indiana, and the 2012 Democratic National Convention taking place in a city with one of the lowest union membership rates in the country. Unions don't matter, they say.

They are wrong. Unions matter today more than ever.

If we want to rebuild the middle class in this country, we need strong unions. It is not a coincidence that the decline of the middle class began with the decline in union membership. A study published last year in the American Sociological Review by Bruce Western of Harvard University and Jake Rosenfeld of the University of Washington found that "between a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality can be explained by the decline of unions."

We see the result of this decline every day. More of our citizens are working in low wage jobs, are without healthcare, and are without the means to save for retirement.

As they did nearly 50 years ago, union jobs offer workers good salaries, pensions and health care benefits that give families the economic security they need to send their kids to college or trade schools, to invest in their communities and to have a secure retirement. This is not some socialist ideal. It is the American Dream and unions help to ensure that more Americans have a chance to live it.

In addition, unions matter if we want to retool and retrain our workforce for the global economy. You often hear of employers not being able to find skilled workers. Unions and their training programs are a critical component of the answer to this problem. At their own expense, unions and union contractors provide training and apprenticeship programs that teach the latest construction and building techniques, with a focus on safety. This training gives our workers the ability to compete with anyone in the world. These union training programs should be rewarded and encouraged and the workers that graduate from these programs should be put back to work rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and rebuilding our economy.

More importantly, unions matter because who else will speak on behalf of workers? The Chamber of Commerce speaks for the interests of business and AARP speaks for the interests of the elderly, but who speaks for workers everywhere? Unions do. If workers are to have a share in the future prosperity of this country, they need unions to advance their issues. Otherwise, the voices of corporations, the rich and the well connected will drown out the voices of average American workers.

In order for unions to remain strong, we must remain united at the ballot box. We cannot allow our opponents to divide us politically. We must support each other's causes and leaders, and stand united in the common interests of organized labor -- the right to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. Union members must vote in their self-interest, not against it.

If we want to do something about this nation's inequality, if we want to rebuild the middle class and if we want to train the greatest work force the world has ever seen, we need unions.

Unions matter. They mattered in the past, they matter today and unions must remain strong if they are to matter in the future. If unions do not stand united and do not fight for the needs of working Americans, then Labor Day is meaningless. It will be just a day off in September.

That matters to me and it should matter to you.

Edward M. Smith is the president and CEO of Ullico Inc., the only labor-owned insurance and investment company. He is a former vice president and former Midwest regional manager for the Laborers' International Union of North America and has been a member of Laborers' Local 773 for 44 years.