Every now and then I’ll be talking about the teachers strike with someone and they’ll say something along the lines of “I understand why they’re doing this, but why do they need a contract?” or “Why do they need a union?” It is something I haven’t asked myself since taking U.S. History in high school, but is certainly worth revisiting today.
The greatest need for unions is in service and trade industries. We’re talking about people who do manual labor and put their bodies on the line when they go to work. If there is a high level of risk involved with your job–perhaps as a construction worker, factory worker, custodian, maintenance worker, baker, chef, or waiter–you should have a contract which says your employer isn’t going to cut you loose if you get hurt on the job. Especially when working with a full-scale industry like automotive plants, construction firms, big office firms, and schools, your employer should be willing to offer you some kind of benefits since you are putting much of yourself on the line. It isn’t right for them to hire and fire folks simply because the type of work prevented you from continuing on the job. If you’re injured and you’ve worked for a company for some time, you should be entitled to some kind of job-retraining or severance pay.
The next area where I think of needing unions are our hard-working public–and increasingly private–emergency personelle. I’m picturing police, firefighters, medics, hospital doctors, and nurses. These are folks who have high-intensity jobs and whom we rely on for many on-call situations. They’re jobs require more than your average worker and, again, these brave men and women should be provided reasonable working conditions. They’re able to fight for these working conditions as a union.
The next category I think of are professionals who are given a certain level of autonomy but are directed to do very specific things. This includes teachers, paraprofessionals, administrative staff, and municipal workers. These people are hired en masse to do particular jobs and they should not just be thrown out like cogs in a machine when someone points out there needs to be more time for sick leave or there needs to be an increase in health care coverage.
Which gets me to the main point: workers deserve to be treated like people. That’s why we need unions. Because, particularly in public jobs, we deserve some freedom to point out what isn’t working or what isn’t right without running the risk of being fired because we’re at-will employees. I get it, if you’re a private business you can do what you want, but in the public sphere we should be fighting for the very best. If teachers in Chicago are pointing out the fact that roofs are leaking and class sizes are too big, then they shouldn’t be told to shut up. They should be able to walk off the job and say something isn’t right. Unfortunately, they can’t even do that, because that’s not considered cause for a strike.
Fewer than 12 percent of Americans today belong to a union, and I think it is a big part of why we’re seeing a decline in customer service and an increase in the gap between rich and poor. I believe that if we’re going to move our country forward, we need workers to band together and improve the quality of life we have in this country before it’s too late.