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American Workers are Transforming the Economy

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Liz Shuler

In just one second, Amazon’s executive chairman Jeff Bezos makes nearly $2500. That’s four times the weekly pay of an Amazon delivery or warehouse worker toiling in the sweltering summer heat.

Last year alone $6.5 trillion flowed from the bottom 90% of wage earners to the top 1%. That means the janitor who cleans our child’s school, the nurse who cares for our sick father and the grocery clerk who always greets us with a smile are struggling, while the wealthiest among us literally skyrocket into space with bottomless bank accounts.

Upward mobility seems out of reach for most Americans. Young people are backsliding with low wages, out-of-control housing prices and crushing health care costs.

But our story—the American worker’s story—will not be written by billionaires.

This Labor Day, working people are writing a new chapter infused with hope for a brighter future. We’re no longer tolerating being called “essential” one minute and treated as expendable the next. Whether on a manufacturing shop floor, in a high-rise office, in a corner cafe or Amazon warehouse, workers are transforming our economy.

Recent data shows that workers won 639 union elections already this year, the highest win total in nearly 20 years. What’s notable is that those victories occurred in many different industries. The heroic organizing efforts at Starbucks and Amazon have captured our imagination.

And there have been worker victories big and small across the economy this year. Like the 19,000 graduate researchers in California who won a union for more equitable treatment at universities and nurses in Maine and North Carolina who wore trash bags as makeshift protections against COVID before organizing unions to win safety protections every worker deserves.

All across America, workers’ power is growing by the day as more demand the rights and democracy on the job that the laws of the United States promise us all.

But too many corporations haven’t moved with the times. At every turn, working people meet resistance from our employers when we try to form a union. Public approval of unions is the highest in my lifetime, a 57-year peak according to a 2022 Gallup survey released this week. Nearly 60 million workers would vote to join a union tomorrow. But far too few get that chance.

As president of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization of America’s unions, I am elected by everyone from soccer players to construction workers to educators to help all working people make our voices heard. My favorite part of this job is being on the frontlines of these fights with the workers who are leading them.

I see a lightbulb go off when people realize we don’t have to accept abysmal working conditions. Instead of quitting jobs in frustration, we can stand together as part of a union, and have the power to demand change.

Some corporate executives are evolving, like Microsoft President Brad Smith, who is respecting workers’ freedom to join a union. Microsoft worked with the Communications Workers of America to enter into a labor neutrality agreement at Microsoft and Activision Blizzard, because the company knows allowing workers to join a union is the best way for employers to count their employees as true partners.

But Microsoft is the exception, not the rule. Most CEOs still revert to a decades’ old playbook of stifling worker voice, often breaking the law to do so. When employers use retaliation, harassment and illegal firings to try to stop organizing, they reject the best path forward for an equitable economy and basic fairness on the job.

No worker should have to stand alone in the face of the power and ruthlessness of billionaire CEOs. That’s why the AFL-CIO is launching an effort this year to resource helping workers unionize at an unprecedented level, making organizing the center of everything we do as a movement.

Our new Center for Transformational Organizing aims to level the playing field by uniting our unions in strategic support of workers who are simply fighting for the American Dream of a better, more secure life.

Standing together, working people are raising wages that lift up entire communities. We’re solving climate change while creating good jobs with clean energy. We’re investing in the infrastructure that builds our nation’s future. We’re developing technologies like semiconductors to keep America globally competitive. We’re fighting for social and racial justice so economic gains are broadly shared. And we’re making workplaces safer, healthier and free from discrimination.

A more democratic workplace is coming. If you are one of the majority of America’s workers who are thinking about joining a union, now is the time.

This Labor Day marks the dawn of a new era of worker power. And we’re never going back.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 8, 2022. Published with permission.

About the Author: Liz Shuler is president of the 58 unions and 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO, and the first woman leader of America’s labor movement. 


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