July 1, 2012: Metamorphosis. I had gone to bed a graduate student and rose as an assistant professor. This transformation was underappreciated by my friends and family. And granted, it was incomplete. Thanks to a research fellowship, I did not actually see the inside of a classroom until last week, when I joined a sociology class at Columbia for a discussion of my book, With God On Our Side: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital.
There, five undergraduates—a small, friendly firing squad—asked me to explain myself. Why had I chosen to be a sociologist? How had I gotten interested in health care? And why (in the world) did I focus on labor unions? I had relatively coherent answers to the first two, but the last seemed more loaded. I asked for clarification. The student seemed a little embarrassed, as if he were trying to avoid offending me: “Well, it seems like unions are irrelevant,” he stammered. “So why focus on them?”
Students have a way of cutting to the core. Why do I care about unions? Why should anyone? Union membership has been in the decline for the last half-century. Rates of national union membership hover around 12%, and private sector unionization has dropped below 7%. Labor law is gutted, and fiscal conservatives, like vultures, pick at its remains, working to eviscerate the last strongholds of union membership in the public sector. Even in Obama’s most populist moments he treats “labor” like a four letter word.
I don’t remember exactly what I told the student; it wasn’t Oscar-worthy. Here is what I should have said:
If we care about economic justice, then we must care about unions. Workers in unions earn between ten and twenty percent more than their non-union counterparts, and are almost thirty percent more likely to have health benefits. According to recent research by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, declines in union membership help to explain a goodly share of rising economic inequality.
If we care about workplace dignity, then we must care about unions. Absent union membership, employees have little in the way of workplace protections. The First Amendment does not apply to them, and they can be fired without due process. Without unions, workers have no guarantee of having real voice over the conditions of their employment. We may live in a democracy, but without unions we work in dictatorships of varying degrees of benevolence.
But there is another, broader reason we must care about unions. The future of the labor movement is in industries like health care and education, in hospitals and in nursing homes, in schools and in colleges. These are the workers who are teaching our kids, who are taking care of our parents and our friends. They are teaching us to read; checking us for bedsores; helping us overcome our fear and uncertainty. Their interests—staffing ratios that allow them to nurse in the ways they know how; class sizes that let them allow them time with individual students—are our interests. As workers fight together to protect their dignity, they are protecting our dignity as well.
Unions do not always do this perfectly. But there is no other institution in the United States that does so any better. And so for the sake of economic justice, workplace dignity, as well as for the sake of a more just and dignified society, I have faith in unions.
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