Club Members had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Nate Fairman, President of the San Diego Labor Democratic Club, at our monthly club meeting. Nate, Business Manager of the IBEW Local 465 (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and a journeyman lineman by trade, has made it his mission to build bridges and strengthen partnerships within the party and between party and labor members. Given some recent diversion of goals between the two groups this is a welcome mission.
As Republicans in particular over the last decades have taken aim squarely at Labor Unions, it is worth examining the question, “Why do we need unions today?” If one examines the data it is obvious to see the correlation between union membership, or density, and economic inequality and the disappearance of the middle class. In 1983, 20.1% of the workforce was unionized compared to only 11% today, and of that only 6% of the private sector is now unionized. Politicians have made it easier to ship jobs overseas and the result of lower union density has been an increase in lower paying jobs, contributing to widening inequality. “How does something like a Hepatitis A outbreak occur in one of the U.S.’ largest cities?” Nate asked. The result is that today a startling 4 in 10 San Diegans can’t make ends meet!
“With organized labor weakened, our ability to get the wealth we produce is weakened,” Nate explained. One need only look at the chart below, correlating income with union membership, to see that lower union membership has resulted in a huge prosperity gap, propelled particularly by President Reagan’s attacks on the air traffic controllers union in 1983. And this is precisely why both labor and the Democratic Party need and want to organize the same group of people. We have common goals and we are connected. Having no middle class is bad for us all.
So what is a union and what benefits does it provide workers? Historically, unions are the only ones to represent workers. “Concepts such as ‘the weekend’, overtime pay, child labor laws, paid leave and apprenticeships didn’t just come out of the air,” Nate said. “People died for these rights,” he explained. Moreover there is an added benefit not usually realized – since unions represent ALL workers regardless of political ideology, union membership serves to expose all workers to more progressive values that some conservative workers may not have had the opportunity to previously experience.
The right to unionize was established in 1935 via the Wagner Act, better known as the National Labor Relations Act. From this, collective bargaining was born. By 1953 31% of the workforce was organized. Today, there are over 200,000 union families in San Diego and Imperial Counties.
Moreover, unions play a much larger role in society than we tend to realize. “The labor movement is arguably the largest women’s rights, racial justice, immigration rights, and civil rights movement in the country,” Nate explained. Unions represent six and a half million women and they promote equality. Union contracts apply to all and do not understand or recognize gender or race. Since all members of the union vote on all issues, democracy is foundational to the union.
But with Reagan’s busting of the air traffic controllers’ union it sent the message that “it’s time to go after unions”. The result was stark. Ever since that time wages have stagnated and all new income has gone to the top 1%. “We are more productive than ever before yet wages are stagnant. If wages kept pace with productivity the minimum wage would now be $21.36,” Nate declared.
Unions make a difference in quality of life as well. If you are a maid cleaning hotel rooms in San Diego, would you rather clean 15 rooms a day (the union rule in a union hotel) or 32 rooms a day (as at the non-unionized Hyatt downtown)? “We are asking for a better quality of life for all, not just for special interests,” Nate said. On average, union wages are 30% higher than non-union. “Want more money?” Nate asked. “Join a Union!”
So how can we, the average non-union member citizen, help out? For starters, don’t use the rhetoric of the right to denigrate unions, such as using the term “Union bosses” or “Union thugs”. “They like to pit members against each other but unions are for all, don’t let them divide us,” Nate implored. Buy union labeled products, and made in America products whenever possible. Do not ever cross picket lines. Resist the Trump anti-worker agenda and challenge every effort to privatize social services. And don’t ever shop at WalMart!
If you’d like to attend the San Diego Labor Democratic Club meetings, they meet the first Sunday of every month at 2:00pm. Meetings are at 541 E. 24th St, National City, CA. If you have any questions for the club, you can reach out to them at SDLaborDemClub@Gmail.com.
Here is Nates’ presentation.