I was pleased that President Obama spent so much time on the matter of economic inequality and the need to raise the minimum wage in his State of the Union address. Better late than never. But there was something that he did not address that I wish that he had taken up. Stated simply, if you want to overcome economic inequality and raise wages, you need labor unions.
Yes, at one point the president did mention the term “labor leaders,” but what has been striking throughout most of his presidency is that he is neither an advocate for labor unions nor one who figures out a way to slip in the basic fact that labor unions are the single most effective route to raising the living standard of working people. This, by the way, is not a disputable point. Study after study demonstrates that unionized workers earn more in wages and benefits than do non-union workers. There is also sufficient real-life experience to know that it was through good-paying, unionized employment – whether private sector or public sector – that workers were able to earn enough to buy homes and send their children to college.
While I certainly support the president’s call for an increase in the minimum wage and his appeal to employers to voluntarily ensure that their employees are making at least $10.10/hour, such a wage is clearly insufficient. How many of us can live, these days, on $10.10/hour ($21,008 a year)? No, the answer is that the economic inequality in this country must be addressed by putting more wealth into the hands of the people who create the wealth in the first place – the people who work, who produce things, who keep this country running.
But the president should know this. Yet, year after year it is as if labor unions are an afterthought, unless he is addressing a union audience.
No pressure to speak up
There is a famous quote from President Franklin Roosevelt, where he stated that were he to go to work in a factory, the first thing that he would do would be to join a labor union. I cannot imagine President Obama saying something like that, as much as I would like to hear it in one of his eloquent speeches. The bottom line, however, is that regardless of what he may think about unions, he certainly does not feel compelled to say anything approximating FDR’s words because there is little pressure on him to do so.
So, once again, it is up to us to actually write his script. And that means changing the so-called facts on the ground, and creating enough mass pressure around economic inequality; around workplace health and safety; around job discrimination; and rights at work, that the president has no choice but to publicly stand with working people in insisting on their right and necessity to join or form unions if we are to turn things around.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer.