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"Commentary on the Kahlenberg-Marvit Article: Randi Weingarten"

January/February 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

President, American Federation of Teachers,

We’ve always been a nation built on the simple belief that everyone deserves equal access to economic opportunity and a path to the American dream. That no matter who you are or where you are from—immigrant or native-born—each of us should have a fair shot to achieve our dreams and care for our families. Today, that fair shot, that path to economic opportunity, is under attack by a group of elites seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

And one of the biggest threats to economic opportunity is the coordinated effort to strip Americans of their right to collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits and a better life for their families and communities. Consider this: Between 1973 and 2007, union membership in the private sector dropped from more than 34% to 8%. During that time, wage inequality in the private sector increased by more than 40%. As we saw in Michigan, extremist politicians continue to ram through policies dubbed “right-to-work" which instead choke the ability of unions to act effectively. These so-called “right-to-work” laws have depressed wages and suppressed the ability of workers to collectively bargain. Today, when workers seek to join unions, 25% of employers fire at least one pro-union worker. And workers are routinely harassed, intimidated and threatened for trying to form or join a union.

We know that workers who belong to unions earn 28% more than non-union workers; nearly 87% of union workers have guaranteed pensions; and 84% of union workers have jobs that provide health insurance benefits. Back when more than one-third of Americans belonged to unions, we were able to set wage-and-benefit standards for entire industries—for union and nonunion workers alike.

This attack on the fundamental right of workers to freely join unions not only threatens economic opportunity but also the strength of our democracy, by taking out the only true way—at either the bargaining table or the ballot box—that working families can have a say in their own destiny. Collective bargaining is a necessary part of a capitalist democracy; it ensures economic fairness and reduces income inequality. Given how the scales have tipped against working families, and that economic inequality is at the highest level since the Great Depression, it is time to amend the Civil Rights Act to make it illegal to fire or discriminate against workers who are trying to form a union and to better their lives and their communities.

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