Our Pandemic: What does it mean to live in a country without Unions?


We live in the richest country in the world.

We live in a country in which about 6% of private sector workers belong to unions.

How could this be?  What does it mean?

In brief it means that the public health and economic crises we face today have hit our working class the hardest and as it does that working class will have no voice in what to do about it!  We are talking about literally tens of millions of people who go to work each day with no voice about anything, with no power to engage the government or their employers about how to protect themselves from the virus, or how to survive while tens of millions of jobs disappear.

We must understand that without unions, there really is no democracy.

Please read the attached article from a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times.  It highlights the reality for the millions of truckers in the United States who operate as “independent contractors” with zero protections for their own safety, and nothing but personal struggle to survive in general.

This article features the plight of the drivers who pick up and unload goods at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s largest.  For more than two generations waves of largely immigrant drivers and major unions have made valiant efforts to organize.  It is one of the great largely unknown struggles in our country.  Workers with essentially no labor law rights because of their classification as “independent contractors” have engaged in all manner of action including strikes, political action, and strong community engagement.  The struggle continues.

The ports, the rail infrastructure, and the highways that created the largest transportation hub in the United States was built by tax dollars.  In the early 1990’s visionary labor organizers, university scholars, and community leaders created LAMAP (The Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project).  Its research demonstrated that  public funding  created and enhanced the largest center of manufacturing, warehousing , and transportation anywhere in the nation.  LAMAP called for unions to come together and organize these hundreds of thousands of workers  on a sectoral basis.

While the Unions had a difficult time agreeing on the organizational means to fully engage in the effort to organize the workers in the Los Angeles basin,  important efforts to organize pressed ahead.

Further, and perhaps more importantly,  the case of the Port Drivers reminds us that the primary reason these workers remain without a voice is because of the combined limitations  and prohibitions of labor law, and the billions of dollars spent on anti-union campaigns led by law firms and consultants.

As California which according to today’s New York Times has an economy larger than 25 other states combined reels with 20% unemployment and a dangerous and tragic public deficit of $54 billion, we can say with confidence that “as California goes, so goes the nation. ”

Much of California’s economy is fueled by agriculture, warehousing, and transportation.  While the state is more heavily unionized in the public sector and in health care, in these large private sector industries many millions are without unions and without a voice. So it is across the nation.

So, what does it mean to live in this richest of all nations in the time of Our Pandemic without Unions?  And before we answer that question, we must come to grips with a central truth:  the lack of unionization in the United States has been created by conscious public and private efforts to stop unionization through explicit public policy of deregulation, support for anti-union campaigns, and all manner of public support for corporations’ growth,  tax loopholes and  tax giveaways.

We arrive at this time in our history with a clear public policy that has created a society in which there  is no worker voice.  How will the nation be rebuilt?  What kinds of choices will be made? Can we afford as a people to allow for decision-making about safety, standards of living, social benefits, housing, education, and the future of this economy  left to corporations and policy makers alone?

We cannot look forward without planning how we will get there.  What kind of a nation would we be today if the agricultural workers, the truckers,  the food processing workers, the warehouse workers, the nursing home workers and home health aides, and all of the rest of the workers who go to the work every day to provide for the rest of us  had a voice?

We would be a different nation.

We can have a very different society with workers as part of the development of public policy.  We can build national systems of social benefits.  We can build national systems of security and safety.  We can break down racial and ethnic disparities in health, housing, education and employment…we can, when we listen to each other and determine what we want as a  nation with all voices at the table.

Our Pandemic has exposed the insecurity of our people, working class and middle class.  The data has been there for decades for us to see and live with.  The data tells us that we are a very insecure and unjust society.  Today, all is exposed as never before!

And lest we forget, many millions of workers have made very conscious choices to organize unions over the past 30 years as our society has become more and more insecure and unjust.

Their efforts were met with legal blockage, whether it be “independent contractor” status,  employees of franchises, or just  plain getting fired for trying to organize as US labor law became increasingly toothless and unenforceable.

Their efforts were met with private funds as billions of dollars created and supported the anti-union industry to stop unionization efforts in their tracks.

Their efforts were met with off-shoring and transfer of jobs to poor workers around the world.

I think most people actually know what is going on.  They feel powerless to do anything about it.

So, as Former Governor Jerry Brown of California has called for a “Rooseveltian” response to the economic crisis, we should remember that our last great labor law reforms were part of that New Deal.  Today’s  new New Deal must include renewed purpose and active measures to put all working people at the unionized sectoral table of their work, and jointly determine a safe, secure future.

The truckers at the Ports of Los Angles and Long Beach risk everything every day for all of us.  And in truth, the overwhelming majority of people who live and work in this country are at risk, insecure, unsafe, and most important of all, without voice.

We need contemporary LAMAP efforts to succeed in all sectors of our economy.  Support for such sectoral forms of organizing ought to be a top priority for all of us.  When people come together to create common voice, they will also develop a kind of social solidarity that is missing during Our Pandemic and more broadly.  That social solidarity can unite around collective purpose, to win a war, yes, a war against the virus, and the war against our catastrophe of broad and deep insecurity.

It is time for a reckoning about voice.




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