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Worker power must fuel America’s economic future

We were grateful to share the below perspective in Capitol Weekly as we enter the Labor Day weekend in a pivotal year for work and workers:

For many, Labor Day means a day off work and one last summer BBQ. But without a strong labor movement, our country wouldn’t have weekends at all, let alone long ones.

Unfortunately, union membership has fallen by half over the last 40 years, often as a result of state “right to work” laws. Only one in 10 American workers is a union member, with the numbers even lower in the private sector. As unionization has decreased, so has the middle class’ share of national income.

An erosion of worker power connects directly to rising income inequality, unsafe working conditions, and the shrinking American middle class. Fortunately, there are new movements, partnerships, and opportunities that are returning power to workers – if they gain support.

That is important to all of us, not just low-wage and blue-collar workers. Over time, the labor movement secured many benefits we take for granted: the five-day workweek, paid overtime, employer-based healthcare coverage, a minimum wage, and more.

To build an economy that works for all Americans, we need a resurgence of worker power, and we may just be seeing that at this critical time. This Labor Day, employers are desperate to fill open positions, but many workers are leaving or turning down poor-quality, unsafe jobs.

Many more, however, must continue in jobs without protections or opportunities to advance. And the workers in California who are paid and protected the least are people of color, particularly women.

State and federal policymakers have a particularly crucial role to play in expanding the right to collective bargaining and strengthening labor protections. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed AB 378, the Building a Better Early Care and Education System Act, into law, recognizing the right of childcare providers to unionize for the first time. This legislation opens the door for approximately 40,000 childcare providers in the state—mostly women of color—to negotiate higher wages and increased benefits. Currently, the median income for childcare workers is $12 per hour and 58% rely on government assistance programs to support themselves and their families.

When organized, women’s pay increases by 6%, on average, compared to non-unionized women. And Black and Hispanic workers see a jump of almost 14% and 20%, respectively, compared to their non-unionized counterparts. But these benefits aren’t limited to union members. Union-led bargaining has ripple effects: in places where union density is high, non-union employers find themselves compelled to raise wages and introduce other benefits to compete on the labor market.

People throughout the country are laboring in similarly unsustainable conditions. We are excited by the growing number of leaders organizing workers’ collective power, especially by increasing the racial and gender diversity of their membership.

For example, the LA Labor Federation and Anti-Recidivism Coalition place formerly incarcerated individuals in union apprenticeships and Destination Crenshaw recruits and trains Black construction workers for union jobs.

In addition to getting a career foothold, organizing efforts also can ensure protections for workers. In San Francisco, immigrant restaurant workers bravely stepped up and organized to fight for their unpaid wages and improved working conditions, working with the Chinese Progressive Association and Asian Americans Advancing Justice to win a recent settlement.

If Congress passes the $1 trillion infrastructure deal, these once-in-a-generation sized investments mark an unparalleled opportunity to build worker power. The best way to do that is to ensure unions and worker advocates have a seat at the table.

Philanthropy, community, and policy leaders must also ensure worker voices are in conversations about planning and resources to revitalize the economy. A model can be found in the High Road Training Partnerships, now being implemented by the California Workforce Development Board, in which worker voice is actively included in program design, implementation, and evaluation.

Labor Day is a chance to reflect what kind of economy we want. Will we continue our trajectory toward greater inequality and limited opportunity for most Californians? Or will we, once again, empower the labor movement to build an economy that works for all?


About the Authors: Eliseo Medina was a leader in the United Farm Workers union, trained by César Chavez, and held numerous leadership positions with the Service Employees International Union from 1986 to 2013. He lives in Los Angeles and serves on The James Irvine Foundation’s Board of Directors. Don Howard lives in San Francisco and is Irvine’s CEO and President.