Op-EdOpinion

CURRY: The American Dream Belongs to Working Americans

I grew up in a world that held the promise of a bright future for those who were willing to work hard. An America that said you can do better than your parents. A promise that meant job security with decent wages, health care, and benefits; a promise that meant training and education and a path to advancement for so many; a promise that made owning a home and raising a family possible; a promise that guaranteed a middle-class life and the ability to retire one day after a job well done. It was the promise that gave rise to the American dream and one that has shaped American values and vibrancy for generations.

Where is that promise today? Sadly, it is now a broken promise. Consider how our landscape has changed over the past 40 years as corporate-friendly politicians have increasingly moved to undermine our working class, as we have continued to put corporate greed ahead of the people whose work makes corporate profits possible.

A harsh reality

Consider how the terrain has toughened. Consider the damage done as we have increasingly waged war on our nation’s unions and the voice for labor they provide. Here are just a few harsh realities: Today, our country ranks at the bottom of industrialized countries relative to employee benefits like health care, parental leave, paid vacation and sick days, unemployment and retirement security.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), the U.S. is the only advanced country where workers are not guaranteed vacation time. In contrast, Europeans get at least 20 days of legally mandated vacation days, and some countries require at least 30. We are the only industrialized nation that does not offer universal health care for its citizens. This is despite the fact that we spend more on health care than other high-income countries relative to the size of our economy. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), less than 22% of Americans have employer-paid pensions, and only half participate in a retirement savings plan.

Rather than the leader — as we once were — we are more in line with the Czech Republic, Latvia, South Korea and Mexico as the least generous countries for workers. For reference, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland are the top nations for worker benefits.

So, how did we get here?

Union membership has been falling for decades. This lessening of worker representation has resulted in the erosion of solid employee benefits and good wages, a loss of secure, stable jobs, and diminished worker rights. Right-to-work laws (designed to weaken unions and the ability of workers to bargain) in many states have made it much more difficult for working people to form or join unions. These laws have predictably resulted in lower wages and diminished employer accountability.

Over the past 35 years, the number of U.S. workers who are members of labor unions has been cut in half, according to the Pew Research Center. In 1954, nearly 35% of all employed U.S. workers were members of unions. Now that number is about 10.5% despite the fact that approval of unions is at a 50-year high.

While the unionization of workers has diminished, wealth inequality has accelerated. U.S. Federal Reserve data shows that from 1989 to 2020, U.S. net worth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 1% of Americans possessing 40% of the nation’s wealth. In 2019, the CEO to worker ratio for compensation was 320 to 1 — a staggering gap.

It is time to close that gap again. It is time to strengthen our unions, to reach out to new groups of workers who want to unionize and pave the way for enhancing and encouraging collective bargaining, forming unions, and joining together for solid, secure, workers’ rights and benefits.

It does not have to be this way

It is time to commit to our workforce. To once again be that nation that cares about the hardworking women and men in this country and is a world leader in workers’ rights and compensation. Moreover, the economic reality is that we NEED unions. A diminished union presence forces people to work two and three jobs just to make ends meet. Many of those jobs are in the service sector, with low wages, no benefits and little room for advancement. It is the American worker that drives our economy, not wealthy CEOs.

It is time for our state and national leaders and representatives to come together to make a change. It is time to pass the $15 minimum wage, to sign the PRO Act into legislation to protect workers, to keep good-paying American jobs at home and to set America back on the right track.

The American dream needs to again belong to those whose dreams defined it, and whose participation is vital to its achievement. We need to once again be a nation that champions safe working conditions, good benefits and wages, and the ability to have some say in the workplace. We need to make the PRO Act the law of the land.

We must all come together and deliver. We made a promise decades ago, one we should now be making for our children as it was made for our generation. Please let your support for the PRO Act be known. The bill has passed the House and will face tougher opposition in the Senate. Please let your representative know how you feel.

America should not and must not be a nation of broken dreams.

Curry is secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, a labor union representing workers in the United States and Canada.

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