Very few readers of LGM know who Hector Figueroa was. He was the head of SEIU 32BJ in New York, one of the most powerful locals of one of the most powerful unions in the country. It was under Figueroa’s leadership that 32BJ became an even more powerful advocate for working people, including the fast food workers in the Fight for $15, which SEIU has spent millions to fund even though it hasn’t led to a single new union member.
Sadly, being a unionist is a very unhealthy job. Lots of union leaders die young. Amalgamated Transit Union president Larry Hanley, another very strong and progressive leader, just died at the age of 62, for instance. Way too much stress, too many bad meals, not enough sleep, not enough time off. People push themselves to the bone.
As it so happens, Figueroa had an op-ed ready to go for the New York Times. Consider it his political last will and testament.
As the American economy continues its record-breaking expansion, the question for labor leaders across the country is: What can unions do to make economic growth work for the workers left behind by the bonanza of the past decade?
Workers are ready to do more. In the United States, about 80 million workers make less than $20 an hour. And many of them are more than willing to take risks and demand dignity and respect on the job. There are signs of renewed worker militancy everywhere. In 2018, nearly half a million workers in America went on strike or stopped work because of a labor dispute, the largest number since 1986. From teachers to aircraft cleaners, workers are showing a return to the kind of collective action that brought us Social Security, the weekend and a federally guaranteed minimum wage.
That’s a good sign, but it’s not enough to reshape our economy. If labor wants to have a real impact, our movement needs a big and ambitious plan to organize.
We hear all the time about the heyday of American unions. They were strong and influential in the 1950s, when they counted 35 percent of American workers as members. But what most people forget is that this power came from a conscious decision to organize new members — a commitment that began two decades earlier.
In the 1930s, national federations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations realized that without making an effort to grow, the movement would die. So they put real money into organizing. In 1936, the C.I.O., thanks to the commitment of the mine workers and clothing workers unions, poured $500,000 — the equivalent of $9.2 million today — into a single campaign to organize steelworkers. Fast-forward to 2019, and you will find that with only a few exceptions, most unions are not committing significant resources to organizing nonunion workers.
That is a grave error. Poll after poll, especially of millennials, women and independent voters, finds that Americans want unions to be more powerful and influential. But only 10.5 percent of American workers now have a union. As a labor leader, it is heartbreaking to witness our movement risk near-irrelevance at a time when workers are ready to take action and improve their jobs and lives.
Our lack of ambition is having direct effects on the very members we should be fighting for. With fewer workers in unions, we have become weaker at the bargaining table. Many younger union members have two-tiered union contracts, so that older workers get pension benefits that younger union members will never see. And pensions are a nonstarter for nonunion workers. We’ve been tricked into believing that the bosses just can’t afford to let workers retire with dignity, or to fully cover our health care, or pay us enough to feed our families.
How did we go from 35 percent to just 10.5 percent union membership, the lowest unionization rate of any rich country? A lot of the decline is the fault of governments unfriendly to labor. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 slowed down union organizing, putting new restrictions on unions and allowing states to pass freeloader laws (also known as right-to-work laws) allowing nonunion members to enjoy union benefits without paying dues. The Reagan years brought a new round of deregulation and a direct attack in 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who refused his back-to-work order after they walked out to protest poor working conditions and low pay.
But there’s plenty of blame to go around. For too long, too many unions have avoided the tough work that needs to be done to organize nonunion workers, to convince our own members that it’s in their interest to expand our ranks, and to retool our organizations by putting resources into building power. We have let ourselves be backed into a corner, by trying to just hold on to what we have and fighting only for workers who are already union members.
It’s not too late to rebuild our movement. Many who study the labor movement thought the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Janus case last year, which aimed to strip unions of vital dues resources, would kill the movement. That’s what the political right was hoping. But we survived, and workers are mobilizing and organizing, with and sometimes without a union behind them.
We cannot let this unique moment in history pass us by. Organizing workers, all kinds of workers, needs to be our No. 1 priority.
My local union, by mandate of its members, spends at least 20 percent of its budget to bring in workers who are not already union members. We are far from perfect, but our strategy is working. Our union has grown to 175,000 members — doubling our size in just over a decade — by talking to workers in sectors that many thought too fragmented to be organized. Thousands of baggage handlers, security personnel, aircraft cleaners and other low-wage workers at airports up and down the East Coast have joined our ranks, taking risks by speaking up and, when necessary, going on strike, to demand respect. These tactics made it possible for 40,000 New York-New Jersey area service workers to win a $19-an-hour wage rate by 2023, the highest government-required minimum wage in the country.
To make lasting change for American workers, unions cannot focus only on dues-paying members. We need a broader movement that helps every family — union or nonunion — win economic security. We can do more. That’s why our union is running a breakthrough campaign in fast food. That’s why we are supporting the taxi workers’ union in New York City, which won the first ever minimum pay rate for Uber drivers and regulations on app companies to protect driver livelihoods. We are also backing New York State farmworkers in their fight for collective bargaining rights, and we helped them to win those rights in this legislative session.
As the Trump administration ramps up its attack on workers, and with Trump’s labor board and the courts firmly on the side of the rich and powerful, the labor movement can’t wait to organize workers shop by shop. We need, instead, industrywide efforts to mobilize large numbers of workers. This “big tent approach” calls for a richer understanding of the economics and competitive dynamics within industries and in different cities.
Let’s take Amazon, which is now the second-largest private employer in the United States, with warehouses scattered all around the country, many of them also staffed by contract workers. Organizing those warehouse workers should be a top priority for the labor movement, but it would be close to impossible for one union to organize so many workers in so many locations. So unions need to pool their resources and work together, with the shared goal of creating secure union jobs, regardless of which union the workers may end up in.
President Trump is trying hard to divide us, but unions can help reverse some of the damage. We can build a lasting movement that will reduce income inequality, create a country that is fair for all and kick the hatemongers out of office. We must begin putting organizing first today, not in 2021.
I once heard it said that most people miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work. If that’s the case, let’s get to work, my brothers and sisters.
One might not always agree with Figueroa. He was a huge advocate of the Amazon deal in New York for instance because SEIU planned to start organizing those workers. But he was an honest and powerful voice for real organizing in a labor movement that even today is far too staid, with far too many people lording over their little centers of power and not doing much of anything to fix the problems of American unionism. Figueroa will very much be missed.