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Labor's Edge: Views from the California Labor Movement

What’s So Great About Unions, Anyway?

by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler

Let’s be honest. Sometimes, outside of election campaign seasons, even progressives wonder what’s so great about unions. Sure, we had a role to play before job safety laws, the eight-hour day, Social Security and civil rights laws were passed. But today?  

Even our friends aren’t immune to the relentless attacks on unions from the right and the stereotypes that come with them: union thugs, lazy workers, relics of the past, self-absorbed, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Most of you know that as union strength has declined over the past three or so decades, so has the middle class. That's because unions are just regular working people who come together to balance power with employers and bargain for better living and working standards. And when unions are weakened by corporate and right-wing politicians, all working people feel the squeeze.

But there’s probably a lot about what unions do that’s less familiar. Like that we run one of the largest worker training programs in this country. That innovative work by union members fuels today’s green technology. And that we supply a great deal of the man- and woman-power as well as the funding for community service programs, from running food drives to disaster recovery and winning health care benefits for people who don’t belong to unions.

These aren’t things we do to win political elections—they’re things we do because they represent our values. So we’ve created a new online feature that shows examples of working people and their union values in motion “@Work.” I hope you’ll visit it at—and until you do, here are some examples:

  • UAW members are leading the way in creating more fuel-efficient cars.  At Johnson Controls, they are manufacturing absorbent glass mat (AGM) batteries that allow your car to shut down its big energy users while idling, but keep your lights and radio on and easily restart your car when you take your foot off the brake pedal.
  • AFT partners with the First Book program to provide new books to under-served children.  Teachers are making sure that students from any background have the tools they need to succeed in school.
  • The Domestic Workers United grassroots organization in New York created the Park Slope Education Project to inform local domestic workers of their rights under state and federal laws and to help responsible employers understand how to comply with the laws and be good bosses.
  • Helmets to Hardhats helps train and place military veterans in civilian careers—including construction jobs rebuilding the World Trade Center.  
  • The United Steelworkers helped carwash workers in Los Angeles get the health care they need and deserve.
  • Taxi drivers in New York City, despite being exempt from most labor laws because they are considered "independent" contractors, organized and formed the National Taxi Workers Alliance.  They’ve won increased take-home pay and expanded access to health care.

Even if you think you know unions, give us another look—you might be surprised.


Posted on 02/19/2013Permalink

More posts by Liz Shuler

Reader Discussion

Interesting links and discussion. I am in a union and sure, it’s a hot topic with people. Lazy workers who are overpaid. I find it funny when people complain about how much more an unionized worker gets. How about this? How about applying for and getting one of those juicy high paying union jobs instead of complaining about it? Business owners, I get the disdain. To everyone else, why work for less money and benefits? - Douglas G. (writer and contributor @ Best eReader)

at 9:30 am on Sun, Feb 24, 2013Posted by Douglas Green

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