By Leslie Tolf, President of Union Plus
In its third season with Netflix, Orange Is the New Black has had a significant effect on America’s consciousness regarding: race, women and incarceration, and transgender issues. This season highlighted many character backstories, but personally, the most interesting plot-line was that of the security guards and their efforts to organize a potential union. We see labor issues in popular culture and television on occasion, and this example in particular shines light on issues that that arise when workers don’t have labor protection.
In this instance, the security guards at Litchfield women’s prison were dealing with cut hours, a loss of benefits and job security, and how to protect themselves. The answer to that, in addition to having an ally in management, was to form a union.
We’re not often exposed to unionization in mainstream media, so I want to take the opportunity to explain the importance of unionizing and what it takes to get the protection you need when it comes to labor.
A Little Bit of History
During the 18th century and Industrial Revolution in Europe, the influx of new workers in the workplace warranted regulations and conversations around worker protection. In the US, the founding of the National Labor Union in 1886 – though not largely successful – paved the way for unions in the US. Labor protection brought us things we see as customary now, like: the weekend, minimum wage, or national holidays. Without unions, and despite our economy veering towards entrepreneurship and fewer professional boundaries, many of us would be in danger of job loss.
Think about what you see on OITNB, where the prisoners work without pay, are demeaned by the prison and are endangered at every moment. Now, imagine that was your job. Less than a century ago, Americans worked for poverty wages alongside their children in dangerous factories; the same factories where the bosses that degraded them also turned workers against other workers by exploiting racial and ethnic prejudices. Imagine that your death was just another cost of doing business, like the overhead and taxes.
This was America before the labor movement – before workers acted together to demand fair wages, safe workplaces and laws that reflected the values of the working class. Workers not only won things like the weekend, minimum wage and national holidays, but also the less-sexy (but equally important) rights to bargain collectively, to take collective action and to even just talk to your coworkers about your wages and working conditions. People died for these things. While we may live in a great democracy, it’s worth remembering that true progress is really made through the mobilization of people. After all, women didn’t get the right to vote by voting on it.
Should You Unionize?
For a long time, a powerful labor movement allowed all American workers the ability to share in economic prosperity and take advantage of what is now an anachronism: if you work harder, you’ll get more. Wages and productivity went hand in hand until the decline of union membership began to drop as a result of anti-union laws and well-funded corporate attack on organized labor. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy at a constant rate during the years of higher unionization, it would now be closer to $92,000 a year instead of just under $52,000. The fundamental purpose of a union is to balance the overwhelming power of the few people making huge gains in our economy.
Put another way: how many people can afford their own lobbyist to get a slice of that pie? That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is you and your job. You know how great the constitution is? Freedom of speech and assembly? The right to due process? Democracy? You can throw all that out when you enter the workplace. If you don’t have a union, you can be fired for any reason that’s not based on a relatively small list of protected classes. But let’s talk money: union members have wages that average 27 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, are more than 79 percent likely to have health benefits through their employers, and 60 percent more likely to have an employer-provided pension.
What it Takes to Build a Union
Solidarity. Practically speaking, it takes a small group of you and your co-workers who can first quietly assess how others in your workplace feel about their jobs. What matters most to you? Is it the low pay? The poor benefits? Safety? Lack of respect? Focusing on what really matters will be crucial to winning the right to collectively bargain. The labor union you contact will help shepherd you through the election process to a contract, but the most important thing that you and your coworkers can do is to educate yourselves and stick together. And always remember that the union is you and your co-workers, not the third-party intruder your bosses might suggest. It’s your union and you’re trying to fix issues that matter to you.
Why It’s Important
Despite common belief, unions aren’t just for factory workers and building trades, they’re for everyone who wants to make a better life for himself or herself and earn a fair wage for the work they do. When you have a union, hard work can once again equate to sharing in the benefits of your labor. Even a college degree hardly guarantees a good paying job like it once did; too many people with piled student loan debt have found themselves underpaid and struggling. At the end of the day, a union is about how you will provide for yourself and your family.
Follow Leslie Tolf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ltolf