Labor leaders gathered to discuss the future of American unions and the critical keys to their survival at a University of Chicago panel discussion Thursday night. Progress Illinois details highlights from the talk.
The future strength of American unions, which have seen their membership rates tumble over recent decades, will depend on stronger partnerships with progressive groups, national labor leaders said at a University of Chicago discussion on the topic Thursday night.
About 11 percent of U.S. workers belong to a union, a nearly 9 percent decrease from 30 years ago.
Steven Greenhouse, a labor reporter for the New York Times who moderated the U of C discussion, asked panelists what could be done to undo the decline in unionized labor.
The national labor leaders took a step back, saying the overall objective is to steer the economy in a direction that benefits unionized and non-unionized workers alike. And in order to "take back the country on behalf of working people," progressive and labor groups must band together, stressed Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers (USW) union.
"The country would be better off if we found a way to make sure that everyone had enough piece of the pie that they could work with dignity and retire with dignity, and that's all they want," he said. "We failed in expressing that on everybody's behalf. Unions aren't just for organized workers, they're for everybody."
Unions need to "create a broader coalition" with groups that "share our vision for America," added Eliseo Medina, former treasurer-secretary of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU*).
"This is the worst attack that I've ever seen in 49 years on working people," Medina said of the current political and economic climate. "What we need to do ... is put together the most ambitious, well-funded organizing program and go out and have a conversation with American workers about (how) they can help drive change in this country."
"I think you're beginning to see that happen more and more," he added, pointing to the Fight for $15 movement, which is about "demanding there be a wage increase for everybody."
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said organized labor was previously a "pretty poor" partner with progressive groups.
"Our idea in the past of a partnership was: We have a problem. Come help us fix our problem. When the problem's fixed ... the partnership dissolves," Trumka said. "What we're trying to do now is move from [a] transactional relationship to a real functional relationship."
Panelists were also asked why organized labor was unable "to save the Democrats" in this month's midterm elections in which Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate and won other victories nationwide.
Trumka, who noted the economy was the No. 1 issue on the minds of voters, said many "working folks stayed home, because they did not hear any kind of coherent economic message that addressed their individual needs or raising wages, because that was our top priority.
"People don't want to hear messages. They want to hear an agenda," he added. "They punished a lot of candidates who they thought were messaging and didn't have an agenda, and many of those candidates were Democrats."
Organized labor was also up against "unbelievable" amounts of cash that flowed into races, particularly from "dark money" groups that need not disclose their donors, Gerard explained.
In some races, "money flooded in and actually polluted the entire system," Trumka said. "I think it actually threatens democracy, because there's no way the average American can compete with somebody who's gonna dump $100 million into an election."
Going forward, Gerard said unions and progressive groups have to build up "grassroots programs."
"We need to convince the Democrats that they need to quit standing up for Wall Street and start standing up for Main Street," he stressed.
Labor leaders later weighed in on the argument that unions are unnecessary, because workers are treated better now than in the past.
"That's a myth," Gerard responded, adding that polling shows that if "workers were given a free choice to join a union, more than 60 percent would join today."
"America has the worst labor laws in a major industrialized" country, he stressed.
Also, U.S. unionized workers on average make about $200 more per week than their non-union counterparts and typically have better benefits, Trumka noted.
"Eighty-seven percent of the people that voted said their wages are flat or falling," he said. "They would do well to have the power of collective bargaining."
Moreover, if workers overall were faring as well as some argue, "We wouldn't be seeing those statistics about the income inequality," Medina said.
"The fact is that workers are doing worse now than ever," he continued. "Workers need a union more than they ever have. It also is an issue for the American people. When workers do badly, communities do badly."
Check out the full discussion on the future of American labor unions, courtesy of U of C's Institute of Politics:
*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.