“Stronger unions, stronger America.”
If you’re not sure whether that saying is true, ask a shipbuilder in Bath or a millworker in Skowhegan. Ask a school teacher, nurse, or firefighter. Ask an ironworker or a sheet metal worker. These are among the best middle-class jobs left in Maine, and it’s not a coincidence that many of the workers in these jobs are union members.
Today’s economy is a great example of why unions are important. The economy is doing well by many standards: production has increased, stocks are strong, and unemployment is low. Yet workers continue to receive a smaller share of the returns that come from their labor. At a time when profits are rising, American workers’ wages actually dropped by 1.3 percent last year when you factor in inflation and the rising cost of living.
There’s clearly something wrong here. If the economy’s doing well, Mainers should be finding it easier to make ends meet, not harder. The basic promise of America is that regular folks can work hard and get ahead if there are a fair set of rules. We need to find a way to restore this promise to working people.
One way to restore that promise is to give workers a more powerful seat at the table and strengthen unions to fight for fair wages, quality and affordable healthcare coverage, retirement benefits, and a safe work environment.
The labor movement has deep roots in our state, going back to the 1800s, when hardworking individuals, facing powerful monied entities, stood together to strike a fairer deal for each other. Today, underpaid teachers are continuing that tradition by organizing to fight for higher wages and the right to strike. Maine lobstermen and loggers are also coming together to regain more control over their own livelihoods.
Because union strength has always gone hand-in-hand with the well-being of the American worker, powerful special interests have always sought to spread misinformation to the public to undermine unions. Where they have succeeded, the corresponding decline of union strength has only made it easier for corporations to ship jobs overseas or across borders and cut the wages and benefits of workers.
Elected officials need to hold up our end of the bargain and stand up for the interests of the working people we represent. In Congress, I’m an original cosponsor of Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. This legislation adds protections for union workers and strengthens their ability to bargain for higher wages, better benefits, and safer working conditions.
Policymakers also have a responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. When politicians cut corners, lowball costs, or settle for low-wage work, taxpayers tend to get stuck with the lousy results. Whether it’s privatizing public services or skimping on pay for unskilled labor, what looks like savings today too often becomes an unnecessary expense down the road. Instead, we should look to get the most bang for our buck. That means using skilled labor, and prioritizing local workers who take pride in the work they do for their community.
Speaking of skilled workers, companies receiving public funds should commit to job training and apprenticeships to help Maine build a skilled workforce for the future. It’s in all our common interest to do so.
Finally, companies should be held accountable when they game the system by misclassifying workers or skirting basic worker protections that guard against abusive practices.
There’s no good excuse for a race to the bottom when it comes to paying hard-working people the full worth of their labor, keeping them safe in the workplace, taking care of them when they get hurt on the job, and showing them the respect they deserve. Unions fight to protect these rights, and the stronger they are, the better our economy will work for working men and women.
Jared Golden represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in the US House of Representatives.