The right to join a union is a right that is needed now

The right to join a union is a right that is needed now
© Getty Images

FDR’s final State of the Union Speech in January 1944, called on Congress to create an “economic bill of rights” which would guarantee, among other things, a job with a living wage. He contended that this was needed because the political rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had proved “inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”

In light of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 contentious ruling this week that government workers may not be required to help pay for collective borrowing, one more right is now more than ever desperately needed — the right to join a union.


For the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito just wrote that, “We recognize that the loss of payments from non-members may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs…and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members.”


For millions of America’s more than 153 million workers, there is still far too little “equality in the pursuit of happiness.” In fact, 90 percent of the country’s workers have wages that are stagnated since 1967, and income inequality remains at an unprecedented level. And in real terms more than 12 million American workers are still today either unemployed or underemployed.

For most of the last century, until the 1980s, leaders in business and government fairly commonly understood that national prosperity depends on a vibrant middle class growing from the bottom up. Workers were rewarded for their hard work with fair wages, respectful benefits and the opportunity to move up career ladders. And our economy and society were obviously stronger for this view.

But with too many American workers competing today against often indifferent senior management and with a president who seems indifferent to the country’s nearly 8.0 percent real unemployment rate it’s far past time to add one more right to President Roosevelt’s “economic bill of rights”: namely, a worker’s right to freely join a union.

Without union voices, workers have little or no say in their future. All the while, too many corporations — multinational and medium-sized alike — challenge workers’ geographic immobility with their own unbridled capital and technology mobility.

I’ve spent a career negotiating deals, and ultimately all negotiations come down to bargaining strength and leverage. And when labor is appropriately and responsibly strong, workers realize fair income and career growth, which accrues to the benefit of corporate America and the country as a whole.

With workers and their wages being challenged today on so many fronts, it needs to be just as illegal to discipline or fire an employee on the basis of union membership as for race, color, sex, religion and national origin. And in better protecting workers’ right to organize, we will also be better protecting their rights and the rights of all other workers to retirements which are lived in dignity.

In early 2008, in the run-up to the elections that coming fall, former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) and I put together a "Labor Manifesto" which became a foundation, of sorts, for many of the candidates and Members of Congress also committed to the Employee Rights Movement.  Stated in the first person, the Manifesto has two overriding propositions.  First it says in the affirmative for these women and men:

"I believe in the American worker, and I believe in keeping manufacturing jobs here in this country. I believe that our workers and our businesses can compete with any worker and any company anywhere in the world as long as we have a government that will stand up and demand a level playing field for all." 

At its end the Manifesto closes by saying:

“I believe in unions because if you look at the history of this country, things we now take for granted — the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, overtime, health care benefits, paid leave, child labor laws — were all union fights. Unions make life better for working people when they are being taken advantage of, and even if you’re not in a union, you’re still benefiting from the fact that there are unions out there putting pressure on employers to do the right thing.”

Of course this Employee Rights Movement can’t leave behind workers in the public sector, since as we are now about to see in spades the fist of government across the negotiating table can be just as formidable as the fist of management across the corporate table. 

The U.S. today needs many more, not fewer, union members, because unions represent the best path back to fair dealing. Expanding, not shrinking, union membership would be one of the surest signposts on America’s road back to income equality and fairness in employment.

Leo Hindery Jr. is the co-chair of the Task Force on Jobs Creation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former CEO of AT&T Broadband and its predecessors Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) and Liberty Media.