Labor unions and workers’ deeper quest for respect

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler says she hears common themes from workers around the U.S. Those issues have implications beyond economics.

Bryan Dozier/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler speaks to reporters at the Monitor Breakfast on Sept. 1, 2022, at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington.

Labor Day weekend is a time for end-of-summer cookouts and final trips to beaches or outdoor pools. But as our Monitor Breakfast guest Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, reminded us on Sept. 1, it’s also a holiday for and about workers and the value they bring to our world.

As I escorted Ms. Shuler around the room to meet the reporters who were present, she made a special point of also giving attention to other people there – the often “behind the scenes” workers including waitstaff and a C-SPAN camerawoman whose face lit up at the greeting.

During the breakfast, Ms. Shuler described a set of common themes she is hearing from workers she meets around the United States.
“They’re talking about respect. They’re talking about dignity. They’re talking about decent wages and health care and benefits. But they’re also talking about toxic work environments coming through the pandemic, how they’re being treated by customers, how they’re being treated by their bosses.”

News coverage flowing out of the breakfast ranged from the job-market implications of green energy investments just passed by Congress (The Detroit News) to the implications for labor of coming midterm elections in the U.S. (The Washington Times). Plus her call for reforms to a legal environment that she says has become stacked against unions and the spirit of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Bloomberg Law). 

There’s some ambivalence about unions in the U.S. They are viewed favorably by an impressive 71% of adults in a new Gallup Poll. That doesn’t mean an equal share of workers are eager to join a union themselves, but the number does appear to have risen, according to an analysis of this and other polls by Eric Rosenbaum of CNBC.

When he surveyed world history in a book titled “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” economist Benjamin Friedman of Harvard University found a pattern: Societies where prosperity was expanding – and in widely shared ways – also tended toward greater tolerance, cohesion, and democratic values. And vice versa. 

That doesn’t mean everyone agrees on the policies or institutions to best deliver those outcomes. But it does suggest that questions of worker dignity and fairness, which Ms. Shuler highlighted, are worth wrestling with. 

And, as she herself suggested at the end of the breakfast, we can also enjoy a real day off, on Labor Day.

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