For millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet, there is great urgency in reversing the trends that have left them working more hours for less pay.This week marks the 54th anniversary of one of the most powerful demonstrations of American workers in our nation’s history. On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to assert their rights to decent jobs and dignity at work.
At the heart of the March—both in its organization and in its message—was the labor movement. The United Auto Workers paid for the sound system that amplified speeches across the National Mall, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters arranged transportation for attendees. In his speech, union leader A. Philip Randolph honored “the spirit and techniques that built the labor movement,” and when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described his dream, everyone understood that his call for civil rights included economic justice.
This Labor Day weekend, as we also recognize the anniversary of the March on Washington, there is no better time to reaffirm the need for unions in empowering working people and families.
From the 1940s to the late 1970s, unions helped America build the largest middle class our nation has ever seen. When union membership was at 33 percent in 1956, the middle 60 percent of families received more than half of overall income. The right to form a union empowered American workers to bargain for better wages and working conditions without fear of retaliation.
The right to form a union empowered American workers to bargain for better wages and working conditions without fear of retaliation.
Unions continue to fight for the American working people today. An employee who is covered by a union makes 13 percent more than a non-union worker of similar education, experience, and occupation. Having a union also means that a worker is 18 percent more likely to have employer-sponsored health benefits. Unions help close the gender-wage gap where non-union women are paid 78 cents for every dollar paid to non-union men, but women in unions are paid 94 cents on the dollar. In addition, for African Americans, being in a union means a 37 percent increase in wages for women and a 35 percent increase for men.
Unfortunately, far too few Americans enjoy the benefits of unionization. The decline of union membership in the face of aggressive anti-union campaigns has undermined workers’ ability to come together and ensure that their increased productively is reflected in their wages. Union membership has decreased from over 30 percent at its peak in the mid-twentieth century to 10.7 percent in 2016. As membership fell, wages only rose 9.9 percent from 1979 to 2015. If American workers’ pay reflected their increased productivity as it did in the decades before 1979, wages would instead be 63.8% higher than they were in 1979, adjusting for inflation.
This wage stagnation has sent income inequality to record highs: the richest 10 percent of Americans, who in 1979 received 32 percent of all income in the United States, now capture half. By safeguarding the right to bargain over wages and conditions, unions can both foster economic fairness and reverse our country’s staggering income inequality.
Dr. King also spoke of the fierce urgency of now. For millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet, there is great urgency in reversing the trends that have left them working more hours for less pay. Elected officials must now work to strengthen the tools of economic justice, including the right to organize.
For millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet, there is great urgency in reversing the trends that have left them working more hours for less pay.
As Ranking Member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, I believe Congress should advance legislation to protect workers from intimidation when they try to organize a union. Instead, the Republican majority on the Committee has devoted 34 hearings and markups in the past six years weakening the National Labor Relations Act and undermining workers’ efforts to join a union or collectively bargain. With the power of the gavel, Republicans have spent more time attacking workers’ rights than they have on college affordability, on job training in a changing economy, or on preventing people from being killed or injured in a workplace accident.
This fall, Congressional Republicans plan to advance legislation to undermine current laws that ensure that workers can join together to bargain for better pay. For workers who are hired by a temp agency or a subcontractor, but perform all of their services for another company, this bill would narrow the standard for holding multiple employers accountable to their workers. It would allow employers to escape liability for wage theft or unfair labor practices. Such legislation would further exacerbate the skyrocketing growth in income inequality of the past 40 years at precisely the time we should be restoring dignity in the workplace.
Now, more than ever, Congress must reaffirm its responsibility to improve the living standards of working people by bolstering rights on the job. To rebalance our economy, we need to make it easier for workers to organize unions, rather than trample on these rights. This Labor Day, and every day, we must honor the accomplishments made by working Americans throughout our history, and we must recognize that the fight for economic justice and protecting working people is a constant fight. Democrats have put forth a better deal for working Americans that creates millions of jobs, raises incomes, and gives everyone the opportunity to achieve the education and skills to succeed in the 21st century. I will continue to fight for these proposals.
Bobby Scott, a Congressman representing Virginia’s third district, is the top Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives.