As a local leader and member of the Meriden Hispanic community, the Record-Journal asked me to give a voice to an issue that I feel is important to our community. One of the issues that I am passionate about and I believe impacts most of the population, especially in the Hispanic community and communities of color, is labor.
There’s been a lot of discussion about workers’ rights lately — at the state and federal level. A current example that comes to mind is the Amazon workers in Alabama who are fighting to unionize in order to better their wages, benefits and working conditions.
Labor is one of those topics that can be controversial but given the percentage of people who work for a living in this country, it is hard to understand why there is any controversy. Rising wage inequality as well as slow and uneven hourly wage growth for the vast majority of workers have been the defining features of the U.S. labor market for the last four decades, despite steady productivity growth.
There are generally a few ways that industrialized countries deal with this issue. Some countries embrace a laissez-faire approach with the hopes that wages will take care of themselves within a market with little to no regulations, others develop a strong governmental regulation system when it comes to setting a minimum wage, and others address it through a strong governmental support for organized labor.
In general, I think the laissez-faire model has been the approach at the federal level since at least the early 1980s. Unfortunately, this approach has led to the stagnation of wages, decreasing of benefits and worsening of working conditions to the American worker. This leaves us with the other two options. I can see the pros and cons of the minimum wage issue such as how it impacts business as well as its non-comprehensive approach to the variety of issues that workers face. What I am unable to understand is when people are opposed to both increasing the minimum wage and legislation that supports a strong organized labor sector.
There are some countries such as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark that do not have a minimum wage at all because they are so highly unionized. According to 2016 statistics, membership in trade unions in these countries ranged from 52% to 84% (as a point of reference, the United States is currently at about 11%). Unions in those mentioned countries felt that a national minimum wage would interfere with collective bargaining and it might even bring the price of labor down.
There is a well-documented link between declining union membership and rising income inequality. The relationship between organized labor and racial inequality is a reality that tends to be less emphasized. Unionization directly benefits people of color. Research consistently finds that racial wage gaps are smaller among union members than among non-union members. Evidence like this shows that a rebound in union membership could reduce the racial wage gap that has been growing since 1979.
I firmly believe that there needs to be a renewal of the organized labor movement in the United States and I think there is much evidence to support that position. I think it will positively impact workers, especially those in the Hispanic community and communities of color. It is currently not easy to start a union in the workplace and that is not by accident. There have been several attempts at legislation to make it easier but they have been halted by those who benefit from lower wages.
So, how can we as a community strengthen and support labor in the United States? It starts with supporting legislation and policies that protect the rights of all workers to unionize. One example that comes to mind at the federal level was legislation such as the Employee Free Choice Act. This act would “establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.” We can support banning “captive audience meetings” by employers. Essentially, these are meetings where employers can require employees to attend (at the risk of discipline or discharge for refusing) in order to promote anti-union propaganda and to exert a coercive influence over the process. We can also support pushing back and repealing “right to work” initiatives. These initiatives severely restrict the rights of workers to unionize and in many cases severely hampers the leverage the union has in order to negotiate better wages, benefits and working conditions with the employer.
I understand labor is not the sole issue of importance within our country or any country. I bring it to this platform because I truly believe having a strong labor sector is one of the ways everyone who works for a living can significantly improve their living conditions and be treated with dignity in the workplace. I fully understand that businesses cannot survive without a profit and I do not see anything inherently immoral with the profit motive. With that said, I also do not think the top 1% (by net worth or income) who live off of dividend income, corporate executive officers, owners of large corporations, etc. will ever happily change the current landscape without being effectively challenged.
Michael Cardona is a city councilor at-large and the deputy mayor of Meriden.