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Collective Bargaining is Key to a Prosperous Economy

In several states, ultraconservative legislatures and governors, claiming to be focused on jobs creation and restoring the middle class, are advocating laws that would actually kill jobs and continue the downward slide of working families.

By Lee A. Saunders

Energizing AFSCME activists at the One Nation March, held in Washington, DC, last fall. (Photo credit: Luis Gomez)

Secretary-Treasurer's Message

In several states, ultraconservative legislatures and governors, claiming to be focused on jobs creation and restoring the middle class, are advocating laws that would actually kill jobs and continue the downward slide of working families.

Lawmakers in states such as Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin want to silence public service workers by scaling-back — or eliminating — our collective bargaining rights.

We know why. The lawmakers won last November with the help of their big-money corporate friends. They’re rewarding supporters by throwing working people under the bus. They argue that collective bargaining has led to rich contracts and benefits for public service workers that are bankrupting governments.

Making Us the Villains

We must tell everyone — from the halls of power to citizens across this nation — that the arguments against us are ridiculous. The average AFSCME member earns approximately $45,000 per year. On average, retired AFSCME members receive a pension of approximately $19,000 a year — and most of our members have been required to contribute to their pensions throughout the course of their careers.

State and local governments often renege on their contributions. In good economic times, elected leaders count on investment returns to make pension funds grow; in bad times, they say they don’t have the money to meet their obligations. We must ensure everyone knows that.

It’s up to us to tell America that our foes are blaming us for budget problems we didn’t create. They hope that by making sanitation workers, EMTs, police dispatchers and snow plow operators the villains, the true culprits — the corporate titans who created the housing bubble and complex investment schemes, then awarded themselves outlandish salaries and bonuses — will get off scot-free.

It’s Everybody’s Fight

When it comes to taking this battle home, we can’t forget the value that comes from the support of our coalition partners and allies — folks from community and religious organizations. They’ve stood with us in other fights and they’re speaking out on our behalf now. This struggle is about the general public who count on good public services. This fight also requires the might and muscle of the entire labor movement whose greatest number of members are public sector employees. That’s because other unions have been decimated and many private sector jobs have been eliminated and sent to other shores.

Unions built the middle class that forms the backbone of the economy. It’s no coincidence that as the number of union members has shrunk, so too has the middle class.

Plus, unions set a strong pay standard that nonunion employers follow, according to research by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Take, for example, a high school graduate whose workplace is not unionized, but who works in an industry that is 25 percent unionized. That worker is paid 5 percent more than similar workers in less unionized industries, the EPI says.

Our Audacious Belief

Additionally, in eight of the 10 states with the most disposable income, nearly all public service workers have the right to unionize. Very few public service workers have the right to unionize in the states with the least disposable income. When workers have more money to spend, it leads to a stronger economy.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he said: “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

Let us hold the same “audacious belief” — one that compels us to fight every attempt to weaken unions. They remain the best route to achieving the American dream.