Have you ever had a bad day at work? It happens to all of us once in a while. Back in the days before organized labor and higher work standards, people suffered daily at their jobs because of things like unsafe conditions, long hours, no training and poor benefits. Workers got hurt and were literally thrown out into the gutters, lost jobs with no notice and had no pensions after years of toiling away.
As a nation, we've come a long way since the 1800s, but the effort to preserve workers' rights is constant and must adapt as industry changes. Over time, labor unions have expanded to include public employees such as police officers, firefighters, office workers and teachers. In Alaska, I am talking about our spouses, children, relatives and friends. Decent jobs with fair wages and benefits provide stability to our residents and sustainability over the long haul. It's real people who have jobs we all depend on and contribute to the economy every day.
Let's face it: For 30 or 40 years of our lives, we work. No matter the trade or profession, we all want to be able to do our job and get home to our families without having to fight for basic rights or safety measures every day. Occasionally I hear people say, "Unions were important years ago, but we just don't need them anymore." I couldn't disagree more. Decades ago, when unions were at their peak, many more Americans had good pensions, good employer health care, job security and living wages. Unions have been at the forefront of every economic justice issue in America for the last 100 years: Medicare, Social Security, workers' compensation laws, minimum wage and overtime laws, worker safety laws and much more.
Unions have been the strongest — and often the only — counterbalance to the extraordinary attacks we've seen on the middle class. But after decades of unrelenting attacks on unions by the rich and powerful, those things we used to consider fundamental to the American dream are increasingly rare. These attacks on unions have unfortunately been quite successful, and the results have been all too predictable: a massive transfer of money from the middle class and poor to the top 1 percent. Think about this staggering fact: the Walton family, which owns Wal-Mart, controls a fortune equal to the wealth of the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined.
And now the U.S. Supreme Court is undercutting unions and working people even more. The Court this week released its decision in a case referred to as "Janus," named after the plaintiff in a case against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Their ruling for Janus will allow freeloading by making it legal for public sector union members to opt out of paying union dues — but still require the union to represent them in every way. Imagine being in a homeowner's association where the dues pay for snow plowing for everyone. Then one day, half your neighbors decide they don't want to pay their homeowner's dues, but yet still want the same services provided for everyone else. Seem fair? That is exactly what the Janus case will make unions do now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of it. Do you think the Chamber of Commerce would allow members who don't pay dues and fees to be a part of their organization? I think not.
Weakening unions weakens the middle class. So far, more than half the U.S. states have made changes making it difficult to join unions. Proponents of these changes call these changes "right-to-work" laws, a term that is confusing to regular people because it sounds like something that ensures jobs. Instead, it's a clever name for policies that allow workers to freeload the better wages, benefits, health care and retirement good union jobs often provide, while skipping out on their dues. Such policies seek to undo almost a century of gains made to protect workers.
Does this Supreme Court decision matter to Alaskans? Absolutely. I am not willing to just hope for the best when it comes to safe working conditions, fair wages and benefits like health care and retirement for my kids when they join the workforce or any other Alaskans trying to make a living and raise families. We need clear rules in place. Collective bargaining, labor contracts and national worker protection laws were hard-fought and put into place for a reason and we have come too far to go backward now.
We can all deal with a bad day at work once in a while, but we must keep protections in place so people can do a day's work for fair pay with the hope of healthy retirement years. Don't be fooled by misleading titled legislation such as "right-to-work," as it is an attack on all working men and women; union and non-union as union's raise the level of safety, wages and benefits, and working conditions for all workers.
It's time for all workers to stand together and say enough is enough and let it be known we will not sit idly by while more than a century's worth of improvements in safety, wages and benefits, and working conditions are taken away.
Dave Reaves is the business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547, which represents more than 4,000 workers in the state of Alaska.