Why unions matter

Gregory Floyd | 2/6/2020, 12:41 p.m.
It’s hard to believe, but five years have passed since I was sworn into office. Standing in the same spot ...
President, Teamsters Local 237

Unfortunately, despite the evidence about why unions matter, efforts have accelerated to limit union power nationwide: in Wisconsin, with Gov. Scott Walker’s crackdown on the teachers union; in the south and mid-west, where a total of 28 “Right-to-Work” states passed laws making it illegal to compel workers to pay union dues, and, perhaps the biggest blow coming from the Supreme Court with its 2018 decision in the Janus case, ruling that public sector employees don’t have to pay dues to be part of a union negotiating on their behalf. Luckily, here in New York, which has the highest percentage of union members in the nation—we’re at 24%––our governor, Andrew Cuomo, by executive order, signed into law provisions that made becoming a “free-loader” a little more difficult to do.

Today, I often hear the question of whether unions matter at all.

To me, the answer is a no-brainer and is why our swearing-in ceremony was so meaningful and symbolic. It’s not just that union members earn, on average, 13% more than non-union workers. Nor is the answer that worker protections apply to all workers, union and non-union workers. No, the answer is not even about the peace of mind consumers have knowing that products and services are delivered by union workers and as such, come with a certain guarantee of quality assurance…(Wouldn’t you prefer to live in a high rise built by union labor?) Yet, probably the most compelling argument on why unions matter is that they are an equalizing force in our national economy. Unions took a leadership role in getting this nation back on its feet following the Great Depression, and––after World War II––unions played a pivotal role in building the stabilizing force of a strong middle class. Now, our unions battle to maintain that middle class so that our children and grandchildren––plus new citizens and long-time citizens––will be included. Volumes have been written about the American Dream. In my view, the middle class is the fulfillment of that dream. Labor unions help to keep that dream alive.

But for unions to have a strong role in the future, they need a strong voice in the present. And our vote is our voice. It’s the best way to be heard. With so many offices up for election––from the White House to Borough Hall––this is really what some have called a “battle for the soul of our nation,” clearly, not an over-statement. And, labor unions have an important role in determining the outcome. If we want a nation where the law of the land includes everyone in it; a nation that pulls people up, not tears them apart; a nation of compassion, not cruelty; a nation in which it doesn’t matter where you’re from or how you started—unions have always been the go-to catalyst for change. With so much at stake, the problem is that, especially in this anti-union climate––which paints a public image of union membership as obsolete, ineffective and out of touch––we must ask ourselves: are we headed for extinction or can labor unions take on the challenges before us?

For me, the answer is summed up in the words of our General President Hoffa as he was about to administer our oath of office. He said the oath was “a re-commitment to our members. Like renewing marital vows. As leaders, it’s the time to ask yourself if you believe in this oath. Are you sincere? We’re here today because the answer is yes. So now, you have to look in the mirror and think about how we can make the lives of our members better. And despite the fact that we’ve all become a little jaded by some of the successes we’ve had along the way, know that we are Teamsters, and we just keep going on, and on and on.”

That’s why we celebrate our new term of office.

Gregory Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large on the general board of the IBT.