Why Labor Unions Matter and How They’re Changing the American Workforce Today

The United States has seen a recent surge in unionizing activity, all of which have been very successful efforts with workers winning fair contracts after holding out when offered ones that didn’t meet their needs. This is worker power, something that suffered a lull throughout the decades but has made a roaring comeback now that the workforce is wising up and seeing that employers truly do have the funds to pay fair wages. While this has certainly been an exciting time, it is still not comparable to the union activity that had a massive wave throughout the 20’s and 30’s. While there was yet another wave of arts and literature all over the world that produced artists like Pablo Picasso and writers like Ernest Hemingway, the worker’s rights movement was producing organizers like Ben Fletcher and Mary “Mother” Jones, heroes taking part in their own renaissance.

“An injury to one is an injury to all!” was the tagline of the International Workers of the World (IWW), whose members were affectionately referred to as “Wobblies”. The origin of the nickname is uncertain, but what is certain is that it was the first union to welcome workers of color, which was unheard of at the time of its founding in 1905. Chinese immigrants had come to this country within the last 100 years and worked on the railroad system that continues to be the backbone of transport for American commerce in the United States. Respect and dignity for their labor was not to be found, as many policies gave way to unnecessary policing and imprisonment for the slightest offenses. Wobblies practiced “Revolutionary Industrial unionism”, which promoted the idea of “One big union”, giving way to another slogan – “The employer class and the working class have nothing in common”. The idea of one big union was to unite all workers, regardless of their job, race, class or creed. They could belong to another union as long as membership dues in the IWW were also paid.

Putting power in the hands of workers is the reason why unions are formed. There are leaders, organizers and stewards and workers that sit on the board that make decisions that ensure this. What is most important to note however is that all of those people are not a union. The union is the actual workers, who make sure that a collective voice is honed and the message then relayed to the proper representatives. It is the worker’s language that should always dictate a contract, not one drafted by bosses or representatives. An organizer’s role is to ensure that those workers speak to each other and know what their demands are, and that their voices are heard.

Kellogg’s, IATSE, Kaiser-Permanente, Starbucks, Colectivo, UAW, Nabisco are all companies who are made of workers that fully and truly understand these concepts. It is without their labor that hurt the company’s back end, but more than anything, drew sympathy from other workers who were inspired to follow suit. Contracts were won and collective action prevailed. Organization of workers sets off chain reactions and the effects are a resounding success. The key to worker power is listening and coming together under a common cause, where workers generally do not have a shared political identity. Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Black, White, Brown, mean very little in the struggle for worker’s rights because if we are not employers, we are workers. It is imperative to obliterate classism if racism is to be destroyed.

Individualism is what destroys collective power, because the entire concept of capitalism is rooted in it, selling a product that is not necessarily for sale to everyone. Distractions are applied and the boss class implements fear in the mind of a worker, telling them that their fellow poor people are the reason they cannot get ahead. It is the exploitation of not just the immigrant worker, but also the citizen workers that have allowed them to flourish while the others have to work sometimes more than 2 jobs just to make ends meet.

We all pay for the ability to live in society, for the ability to not starve or freeze. As workers, we have earned a seat at the table and are able to make our terms known because as the brave souls of the Philly Waterfront dock workers of 1917 and the Starbucks workers of 2021 have shown us, a country will stop when workers refuse to be abused any longer.

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