I have a confession. When I first started working for a union in 2008, I didn’t even know what collective bargaining was. I think it got lost with some other worker rights-related “stuff” from school—issues that seemed to be resolved long before my time.
You’d think that being raised by a single mother who juggled multiple low-wage jobs would better attune me to worker’s rights. Surprisingly, this was not the case.
Only after working in the labor movement have I figured out what collective bargaining is all about. It helps working folks get a fair shake. It also builds America’s middle class. But after trying to explain my job to friends in their 20’s and getting more than a few blank stares, I realized that it wasn’t just me. My generation has a serious gap in labor knowledge. And with a decades-long stretch of declining union membership in this country, things can only get worse.
American workers are doing badly. According to the Census Bureau, the median household income in America has declined 8.9% since its peak in 1999. Income inequality—the gap between the richest and poorest—reached a new high in 2011.
So how do we turn the tide and help Americans get back in touch? If there was a movement that helped improve the lives of workers in the past, wouldn’t we want to revive it today?
Lawmakers in California have one idea. This past week, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that can help future generations get a more solid footing in our labor history. AB 2269, sponsored by Assemblymember Sandre Swanson (D – Oakland), allows schools to commemorate labor history during a month long period instead of one week. Swanson’s office says the bill will help schools “celebrate California’s rich history of working heroes.”
This is by no means earth-shattering. And I haven’t talked to any teachers to find out what this actually translates to in the classroom. But to me, any move that helps connect more people to the struggles that made our country more economically fair—issues that are completely relevant today—is a good thing.
TCF’s Richard D. Kahlenberg has a bolder proposal that could grab our attention. He co-authored a book with Moshe Z. Marvit called “Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right.” In the book, and a New York Times op-ed, they argue that the right to join a union should be included in the Civil Rights Act. Citing the many obstacles that workers today face when they attempt to join a union, this change would put some serious teeth behind protecting the rights of working people and rebuilding what they call America’s “middle-class democracy.”
I hope someone includes this book in their lesson plans. If a provision like this did become law, it could help more people make the connection between labor history, organizing for justice today and turning the tide for working families in the 21st century.