Daily flirtations with nuclear war. Suspending freedom of the press. Fifty-nine people executed during a country music concert. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in the streets. American citizens begging for their government’s help after a storm wiped their hopes and dreams off the map, only to then be threatened with revocation of that aid because Wall Street wants its money. Foreign powers sabotage our elections; our leaders sabotage our health care because of an ill-conceived campaign promise.
Saying “This isn’t normal” has become clichéd, but finding solutions to get us back to normal isn’t yet commonplace.
We don’t have to look too far to find those solutions. They are right beneath our feet.
For 240 years, these solutions have built a strong, stable foundation for our democracy. Equality is one brick. Justice is another. One person, one vote; freedom of speech, religion, and the press; free and fair elections; separation of powers; an independent judiciary—these are all bricks that help form the base of our nation. Our nation’s institutions are the mortar that stabilize and hold these bricks together: public schools, churches, the military, community organizations—and unions.
At their best, labor unions provide the stability that allows democracy to flourish. When working people organize, they can call out corruption and inequality without fear of reprisal. Union members raise standards for non-union workers in everything from wages to benefits to time off. So if we want to get back to normal, strong unions are key.
That is why some of the rich and powerful—authoritarian people and institutions intent on sowing chaos and dismantling our democratic foundation—are targeting unions and the values they represent. Take away the right to negotiate for a fair return on work, and you force workers to beg for a living. Slash pensions, Social Security, and Medicare, and you force retirees to take whatever crumbs they can gather to maintain their dignity. Make it harder to vote, and free and fair elections start to crumble.
At the same time that these same powerful people and institutions chip away at our foundation, they keep adding bricks at the top in the form of tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthy and big corporations. As the tower gets taller, the more unstable it becomes. Right now, it feels like it could fall at any moment.
So how do we stop them? How do we get back to normal? We strengthen our existing foundation and build on it for the future.
Labor unions are a part of that foundation and that future. They have to be. Strong unions bring working people together and give them a voice. They help secure freedoms for everyone—our nation’s founding freedoms and others, too, like the freedom to take a day off work if you get sick or the freedom to retire with dignity. Through negotiation, they win everything from smaller class sizes to shorter emergency response times for everyone.
Union nurses, union educators, union law enforcement, union first responders and countless other unionized public-service workers sustain our communities. So attacks on unions do not just threaten organized workers. They threaten our democracy and civic life. They threaten all of us.
Just days before he died, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to stand in solidarity with that city’s striking sanitation workers. They held signs that read, simply, “I AM A MAN.” Not, “I want a raise” or “I want to retire,” but “I am a man.” Those union members were doing more than fighting for their own fair pay and benefits; they were fighting for dignity, for humanity, for all of society.
When Dr. King delivered what would be his final speech, he said: “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Even in those trying times, King found faith and stability in the American dream, in our democracy, in labor unions and in all of us.
Nearly 50 years later, we can find that same stability in those same places. Our Constitution and our institutions—and strong unions are key among them—can help bring us back to normal.