As I talk to people in my hometown of Detroit, I’m confronted with a question more often than I would like. I hear it asked by young people frequently, but, increasingly, I’m hearing it from veterans of the workforce, too. The issue at stake is collective bargaining, and the question is “why do unions still matter?” There’s another question implicit there. Even if unions and collective bargaining do matter, why should you give them your support?
These are proper questions, and ones that deserves thorough answers in a time when the average worker probably doesn’t belong to a union, and may not even know someone who does. They are hard questions, and ones that require honest answers in a time when many of the most important gains that organized labor has made throughout the years are now enshrined in law. They are acute questions that desperately need factual answers in a time when both workers and business are vying for your vote on Proposal 2 to the Michigan Constitution — a proposal that would grant private and public sector workers a constitutional right to join a union and collectively bargain. They are questions I hope to answer over the course of three articles in the coming weeks.
Now, I am a vice president of the United Auto Workers; but, today, I’m writing as a lifelong Detroiter, as an African-American, and as a concerned citizen. I’m also writing today as a man old enough to remember the past. I am writing with the hope that my experience can help acquit this next generation of their condemnation to repeat it.
I hear people say often that unions and collective bargaining were a necessary and important part of our history. They helped win better wages and working conditions for the worker, unemployment insurance for those out of work, social security for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor and Medicare for the aged. But now, the battle is over. Like a punch-drunk boxer too proud to admit he’s past his prime, unions have stayed in the ring too long.
It’s true that unions played a significant role in our collective history and won crucial gains that helped all people who work—no matter if they were in a union or not. They won holiday pay, sick leave, and weekends. They stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Moreover, the UAW provided Dr. King with the financial and organizational support he needed, when he was planning his first march in Detroit. That’s because both Dr. King and the UAW knew that our causes were inextricably linked. Without economic justice, there could be no social justice. Without workers’ rights, there could be no civil rights.
Our opponents knew this too, which is why they struggled then and continue working today to foment racial resentment in the middle class in order to roll back hard won gains like voting rights, affirmative action and collective bargaining rights.