Opinion: Unions must think differently

By George Gresham - Tribune News Service

As a union president, I see the far-right takeover of the White House, Congress and the majority of state governments as an existential threat.

After a long decline in union membership, only about 11 percent of today’s U.S. workers are members of such organizations, making up just over 6 percent of private sector workers. Connected to this drop, there has been a steep decline in middle-class incomes. The richest 0.1 percent now own about as much as the bottom 90 percent of Americans, the worst inequality since the 1920s.

Those of us in labor must open our arms to a wider swath of American workers, embrace a much broader spectrum of issues, and rethink the movement’s purpose, strategies and vision.

Besides welcoming and supporting progressive coalitions, we must make it easier for non-union workers to fight for their rights. Working people should be able to go to a website and click to join a union, just like any other organization.

Progressive social change can happen very quickly. Just a few years ago, the idea of a $15 minimum wage was unfathomable. Since then, thanks to the Fight for $15 campaign, at least 40 cities and states have increased their minimum wages, including many states that voted for Trump, raising pay for more than 12 million workers.

Unions need to think differently, dream big, and open up our organizing to include millions of non-union workers and community members. If there is a single positive aspect to Trump’s election, it is that he has lit a four-alarm fire under us to mobilize like never before.

The Supreme Court last year deadlocked over whether to let public employees freeload off their unions by reaping the benefits of membership without paying dues. If Trump’s high court pick pushes this through, it would be detrimental to the labor movement.

Then there’s the right-to-work laws — or right-to-work-for-less laws, as I call them — the majority of states have passed, which allow private sector workers to freeload, weakening their unions. Republicans in Congress have already introduced a bill that would apply such a system nationally.

Expect the Trump administration to make anti-worker appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and change a wide range of rules to favor corporations. Workers’ incomes and security also face threats from larger economic trends, including automation and the move toward the so-called gig economy of part-time, temporary and subcontracted work. The advent of self-driving cars and trucks alone could mean more than 4 million lost jobs within the next decade.

By George Gresham

Tribune News Service

George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest health care union in the nation.

George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest health care union in the nation.

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