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October 17, 2011 9:00 AM Who Should Lead The Battle To Save The Middle Class?

By Rick Ungar

Lately, I find myself giving a great deal of thought to who should be leading the monumental task of regaining and restoring the American middle-class. Clearly, the time is right. After thirty plus years of remaining under the radar, income disparity in the United States has finally become a part of the national conversation.

And while Occupy Wall Street, and the worldwide demonstrations that have resulted, may be playing an historic role in forcing the issue to the forefront—and God bless them for that—the campaign has chosen to do their work in way that has discouraged organized leadership. This approach is working for Occupy Wall Street. However, there remains the need for someone to now step up and take charge of one of the most important battles in our nation’s history - the battle to save the middle-class.

The question is, who should that leader be?

There can be no question that the rise of the American middle-class is irrevocably linked to the rise of the American union movement, just as there is little doubt that the fall of the middle-class has moved in virtual lockstep with the decline of the unions’ role in our society.

Coincidence? Of course not.

Prior to the ‘coming together’ of the American Federation of Labor during the early years of the 20th century, workers in this country suffered through third word working conditions and depressing levels of pay. All of that changed with the advancement of collective bargaining. In a relatively short period of time, the American working class went from being treated like a sub-class of American citizenry to the heart and soul of what would become our consumer-based economy. And as our workers put their ever-increasing income to work buying goods and services in order to provide their families with a better life, this newly minted middle-class became the bedrock upon which America would become the leading economic power on the planet.

And then, it all went wrong—both for the unions and the middle-class.

Again, this was no coincidence.

We can point to a number of factors for the demise of the unions. Factory jobs began moving overseas where labor could be provided at a dramatically lower cost. Manufacturers that remained in the US began installing automated production lines that greatly reduced the need for human workers. Jobs began to shift to tech-based industries where workers felt that they were perfectly capable of cutting their own employment deals without the need for paying union dues. Laws were written—such as Taft Hartley—that were devised to greatly lessen the impact of the unions throughout the nation. Large employers, who once understood that their employees were often their customers, became increasingly less concerned about keeping their workers happy as they turned their attention to new customers overseas.

And, of course, unions shot themselves in the foot through acts of corruption and by falling asleep at the wheel as the world around them was changing.

As a result, the union movement went into a stall—and with it went the advancement of the middle-class. Certainly, anyone who has been paying attention is all too aware that the enormous wealth disparity that exists in today’s America can be traced almost to the very date the union movement went into decline.

It therefore stands to reason that it must be the unions—the very organizations responsible for bringing the middle-class to life and whose decline allowed our middle-class to be decimated—who must now lead the charge to save their greatest creation.

So, which of our union groups is best positioned to do so?

The largest such organization in the nation today is the National Education Association (NEA) with approximately 3.2 million members. The NEA is followed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with some 2.1 million dues payers and then the United Food & Commercial Workers with 1.3 million members.

Because the NEA’s membership is comprised of teachers and lacks a ‘spread’ across multiple areas of employment, they might not be best positioned to take the leadership role in restoring the middle-class. Besides, given the current attacks on our nation’s teachers, a sure sign that we’ve lost our mind as a country, the NEA has its hands pretty full.

The UFCW represents workers in the meatpacking, retail grocery and food processing industries. While these are important industries, to be sure, its members primarily work ‘behind the scenes’ jobs and, as such, are not easily perceived as critical to our daily lives.

That leaves the SEIU, whose membership is comprised of hospital, home care and nursing home workers, local and state government employees, and property service workers such as janitors, security officers, maintenance workers and window cleaners.

Talk about highly visible workers! Just stop and think about what would happen were hospital employees and home healthcare workers to suddenly disappear. Try dealing with the demands of daily existence when government employees go away. For those of you who have experienced a government shutdown, on the state or federal level, you have a pretty good idea of how your life can be negatively and annoyingly affected when these people are off the job.

And if you think that janitors are unimportant, think again. If you’ve ever had to show up at the office everyday during a janitor strike, you know full well that it’s almost impossible to get anything done when nobody is cleaning and maintaining the place.

What’s more, the SEIU is the only union in the country that has seen its membership grow in recent years, a measure of success that is no accident.

The SEIU represents the ‘new breed’ of the American union, utilizing a more modern approach to benefit not only their members, but the working class as a whole. The service employees benefitted dramatically from the extraordinary leadership of Andy Stern, a man whose intellect pushed the union in the direction of fighting its battles on the national political stage rather than in the streets. Under the equally capable leadership of the union’s current leader, Mary Kay Henry, the SEIU has the ‘bones’ in place, the worker base, the money and the political smarts to lead the battle that must be fought on behalf of all members of the middle-class.

I would suggest to you that we have our nominee in the SEIU.

If you agree that this is the union to take the lead, take a moment to let them know. It took the unions to make this country great. It’s going to take the unions to return us to a nation where people are treated fairly and continue to advance by moving towards a society based on fairness, equality and an understanding that we would be lost without our working class.

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Rick Ungar is an attorney in Southern California and a frequent writer, speaker and consultant on health care policy and politics. He is a contributing writer at Forbes. Readers can reach him at rickungar [at] gmail [dot] com.
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Comments

  • Rabbler on October 18, 2011 8:40 PM:

    Whatever SEIU does, when acting under a new broader union paradigm, to benefit the workers of America in general is certainly to be lauded. Whether or not it can, or even will attempt to, consistently achieve such broader goals or revert into being little more than another special interest group, remains to be seen.

    Groups such as OWS will make it easier for SEIU to keep its eye on the big picture. If SEIU rises to preeminence on its own merits, then more power to it. I think it is more than a little premature to be ceding overall leadership to any group or person.

    We are fighting 30 years of slick propaganda that have left a significant minority unable discern the truth. Minor specific accomplishments can only be viewed as temporary until the natural majority of the people reasserts itself. Utilizing only one approach to that end would be incredibly naive. The hydralike RW propaganda machine has too many heads for one on one confrontations to work.