When Robert Hughes talks about the advantages of being represented by a union, he doesn’t go straight to the big-ticket stuff such as wages and benefits.
People like Hughes, a union steward for Unite HERE Local 23, make sure food workers at IUPUI, where he’s worked for eight years, have rubber floor mats so their feet don’t hurt from standing all day. He helps make sure management adheres to the “respect clause” in their union contract.
“Unions can be the linchpin for not only respect at your workplace,” Hughes said, “but respect at your home, in our city and country.”
The people who tell Hughes having a union is unnecessary are part of a decreasing minority in America.
A little more than two-thirds of people approve of unions, according to Gallup, the highest mark since 2003 and the 10th straight year that number has been above 50%.
That said, only 10.8% of wage and salary workers were union members in 2020, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to more than a third of such workers in the 1950s.
A union is the traditional defense for workers, but American capitalism only allows so much protection. Working — selling your labor — is almost always essential in order to sustain yourself and a family.
“That’s why I go to work,” said Derek Ford, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
Ford, an assistant professor at DePauw University, chuckled a bit when he said that, but it’s the truth for many people.
Other countries with market-based economies go to much greater lengths for people. Germany, for example, pays a child allowance of about 220 euros ($262) a month up to the age of 18, or 25 if the dependent is in school or training.
There are still a lot of opportunities within capitalism, Ford said, because the money is there. He pointed out there seems to have been more debate about giving people a $1,400 stimulus check than there is when it comes to the budget for the Pentagon, which sits at about $700 billion.
One idea that gained attention during the most recent presidential election, thanks to Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, is a universal basic income. Workers who know they can quit a job they don’t like and still take care of themselves could end up with more leverage when it comes to wages, benefits and accommodations.
Mat Davis, an organizer with Unite HERE, said workers can also feel trapped in a job if they have employer-based medical insurance. Despite the 11-year-old Affordable Care Act (ACA), health care isn’t a guarantee, and subsidized coverage can still come with hefty premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.
Davis said that’s part of the reason there’s a push to move to a single-payer system or at least expand the ACA to include a public option, which President Joe Biden has said he wants to do.
“Eventually, we need to get to a system that is away from employment-based insurance coverage,” Davis said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.