If you want to cut poverty in the U.S., one big way is strengthen unions.
That’s the word from new Obama administration Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, speaking at a recent conference hosted by the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress. Below are excerpts of his address:
“Of course, the best anti-poverty program is the availability of good jobs. That’s why the president is calling for major investments in technology, manufacturing and education. That’s why he wants to upgrade our infrastructure to create opportunities for good middle-class work” as GOP President Eisenhower did in highways in the 1950s.
“We also need skilled, trained workers to fill those jobs…We are making unprecedented investments, working with partners like our community colleges, to build a workforce development system that is aligned with the needs of employers.
“But as we take on poverty, we have to have a short and a long game. There are some singles and doubles that we can hit right now, but we also need to be ambitious in our pursuit of long-range goals…Change takes time. Let’s start laying the groundwork for big ideas so that we’re able to strike when the iron is hot.
“Let me add that any anti-poverty approach must raise up the rights of workers to join a union and bargain collectively for higher wages and better working conditions.
“There is an undeniable relationship-not just correlation, but direct causation – between declining poverty and the strength of the labor movement. It just stands to reason: When workers have a strong voice and a seat at the table, they are able to bargain for their fair share of the value they help to create.
“But when someone muzzles that voice and cuts off the legs of that seat, that’s when you see stagnant wages even as productivity and corporate profits continue to record heights. Empowered, organized workers reduce inequality and build the middle class.”
Perez is hopeful the situation could change. He cited the recent uprisings of the most-exploited workers: The fast food workers, the home health care aides, taxi drivers and others. Many are “unorganizable” under traditional labor law but they’re determined to organize to better themselves, anyway.
“In the coming years, we’re going to see a rapidly evolving workers movement that takes many forms. More and more, we’re seeing new groups of workers beginning to organize at the grass roots level. Fast food workers, taxi drivers, domestic workers and others in low-wage industries are taking action and speaking up for their right to a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work.
“The labor movement and other allies are welcoming and supporting these independent movements. This is exactly what we need: Everyone working together, forging new strategies and building new alliances, in support of working people taking courageous action to improve their lives and communities.
“This isn’t your father’s labor movement, as you know.”
But Perez also urged unions and workers to cooperate with employers, for the common good of both, citing examples from Unite Here, SEIU and construction unions.
Unions are listening. Employers, with a few exceptions, aren’t.
“For example: the Culinary Academy in Las Vegas, which I toured this summer. This partnership between the local hospitality industry and the unions trains thousands of people a year for good jobs-as cooks, maids, bartenders, stewards and more-paying a middle-class wage and providing a secure career path.
“And the building trades, working together with construction companies, are leveraging $750 million a year in private sector money to provide state-of-the-art apprenticeship training that helps so many people find good work and skills that create the foundation for a stable career.
“And SEIU 1199, working directly with health care employers, has training centers designed to prepare people for careers as nurses, homecare workers, pharmacists and more. This is labor and management working hand-in-glove, rejecting stale debates of yesterday, finding common ground and identifying mutual interests.”
In Germany, Perez said, joint worker-employer works councils “demonstrated conclusively that labor-management cooperation increases productivity, spurs innovation and creates shared prosperity. We can do the same as we rebuild manufacturing here in the states, if we reject false choices and work together on creative solutions.”
One point Perez didn’t mention: Workers elect their own representatives to those councils, employers must work through them on decisions – and German law mandates establishment of the councils.
“Rejecting false choices in this manner is critical to all our anti-poverty work,” Perez continued. “I think there’s a misperception-which some have done everything in their power to promote-that it’s all a zero-sum game. Fighting poverty, this myth goes, means a redistributive approach that will hurt other people. If it’s good for the shop floor, it’s got to be bad for the executive suite.
“I categorically reject this kind of divisive thinking, and the false choices underlying it. Some people want you to believe in a binary nation of ‘makers’ and ‘takers.’ But we believe in one America, all of us in it together.
“On issue after issue, we need to leave behind the old battles that pit us against one another and identify the win-win solutions that are there to be seized…We don’t have to choose between job safety, for example, and job growth. CEOs I talk to know that when workers are sick and get injured on the job, it’s bad for their company. They know that cutting corners on safety is not only irresponsible…It’s also a penny-wise, pound-foolish business strategy.”
Perez means well and there are some enlightened employers. But he’s got an uphill battle to convince the majority of corporate CEOs and their political puppets that he’s right. For example, the ‘makers’ vs. ‘takers’ characterization came straight from the an influential member of the House GOP majority, Rep. Paul Ryan, last year’s party vice presidential nominee. Others in the corporate and political classes are nastier.
Still, Perez has the right idea: To eliminate poverty, we need to raise workers’ incomes. And that means strengthening unions.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons