How a union of Yale employees aligned itself with community activists and won control of a beleaguered city.
This article and illustration originally appeared in The American Prospect.
Major Ruth became a civic leader because he made a promise to his neighbor, Brian Wingate. Both had moved to the Beaver Hills section of New Haven, Connecticut, in 2003. A neighborhood of aging single–family homes that had seen better days, Beaver Hills had been targeted by the city for a housing–rehabilitation program, and, with the zeal of new arrivals, Ruth, a manager at the local utility company, and Wingate, a custodian and union steward at nearby Yale University, sought to involve themselves in neighborhood–improvement ventures. That proved harder than they had anticipated. Although New Haven aldermanic districts are tiny, encompassing no more than 4,300 residents, Ruth and Wingate couldn’t find anyone who could identify,
There are many similarities between the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s and the union movement that preceded it in the early decades of the 20th century. Both met with hostility, opposition, and violence. Yet today we look back on the former with gratitude and admiration, while the latter is either forgotten or distorted in our collective memory.
Hard-fought union gains have become part of the fabric of our society: the eight-hour day, elimination of child labor, and safer conditions are but a few of the benefits that unions have secured for all of us. Yet unions have been broadly demonized, and the gains they have won are slipping away.
I’ll be the first to admit that unions have their issues. Nevertheless, I am grateful that my husband and I have been loyal union members all of our adult lives (I am a teacher; he is a Teamster).
For all the talk of saving and rebuilding the middle class, no public official from the President on down has mentioned the U-word. The U-word? “Unions.” From the 1930s through the ’70s, unions turned working-class jobs into middle-class jobs. Hourly wage earners organized themselves into unions that could fight for livable wages, health and retirement benefits, safety rules, job protection and on-the-job respect. These became such national standards that even in the historically right-to-work states in the Deep South, many of these principles prevailed.
But for three decades those work standards have been under attack, wages have dropped — with benefits cut or stolen. Why is this happening? Because union membership declined as free trade agreements shipped those jobs off-shore, as business mergers stripped workers of health care, and as strategic corporate bankruptcies took away their pension funds. Workers have been asked to “give back” in order to keep their jobs from vanishing,
Last week’s annual national union membership numbers were eye-opening, and well, pretty depressing. The relentless attacks on unions nationwide have caused overall union density to drop to a startlingly low 11.3 percent. The share of union members as part of the workforce is the lowest it’s been in 97 years. That’s not just bad news for unions, that’s really bad news for everyone.
According to the Center for American Progress:
Without the counterbalance of workers united together in unions, the middle class withers because the economy and politics tend to be dominated by the rich and powerful, which in turn leads to an even greater flow of money in our economy to the top of the income scale.
But despite last week’s bad news on a national level, there were silver linings. Not the least of which is the trend here in California.
When I started Unionosity, my goal was to provoke discussion about important workplace and economic issues. Work is such a significant part of our lives – many of us spend the majority of our waking hours at it. Yet we don’t talk enough about what it means and how we can do it better — specifically, what can be accomplished if we work together.
Unfortunately, the “working together” part can sometimes go awry before it has the chance to begin. I’ve learned to be mindful of some of the predicaments that the working poor have long lived with. One of these I learned the hard way during an affordable housing campaign I took part in nearly 20 years ago in South Central Los Angeles. The program we were organizing around — ironically, a Jack Kemp HUD program — would transfer ownership of publicly subsidized housing to tenant groups made up of Section 8 voucher recipients,