Union Victories
September 04, 2023

'Thoughts on this Labor Day.' By NYSUT President Melinda Person.

Author: Melinda Person, President
Caption: NYSUT President Melinda Person (center) speaks out in support of SAG-AFTRA members. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

This Labor Day is happening amid a surge of worker-driven activity across our nation. Building on the bravery and tenacity of union siblings who came before them, working people from autoworkers to actors, writers, care workers — and, of course, educators — are seizing their collective power. Polls show that 7 in 10 Americans approve of labor unions, and we know 7 in 10 Americans can't agree on just about anything else.

Support is even higher among young people. According to the AFL-CIO, “The want and need for unions is greatest among those newest to the workforce: voters under 30. Across every metric tested, voters under 30 show wide support for labor unions with near universal approval (88%) and support for strikes (90%).”

Support is high because Americans across ages and backgrounds know that unions help workers win increases in pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions. Consider the statistics:

  • On average, union workers are paid over 11% more than their nonunion counterparts.
  • They are 41% more likely to have employer-sponsored retirement plans.
  • Among workers covered by a union contract, 94% have access to employer-sponsored health benefits, compared to just 68% of non-union workers.

And even if you're not personally in a union, you benefit from union strength in your community. Workers in states with the highest density of unionized labor, like New York, benefit from higher wages; high-quality public services including schools, public transportation and healthcare; and a more secure retirement.

We routinely acknowledge and celebrate what makes unions great, especially on Labor Day, but this year, I have been thinking a lot about what this day means to me, personally.

People often ask me if I come from a union family and if that is how I got my start in the labor movement. And honestly, it took me some time to fully realize how the power of a union impacted my family. Growing up, both of my parents worked, and I observed two different professional worlds.

My mom worked in sales for AT&T. It was a corporate environment where she made a bit more money, had an expense account, and traveled around the state. My dad was a fiscal analyst for the New York State Department of Health (and a Public Employees Federation member). He loved his job and his colleagues, and he felt like he was making a difference every day by helping hospitals fund care for disadvantaged populations.

They both had great careers, but my mom's was a bit of a rollercoaster. Her continued employment depended on hitting quotas and sales goals, not to mention the semi-annual fear of layoffs. If the company was making changes, downsizing or merging to drive profits – or even shifting operations to another city – we knew she could lose her job at any time. This was a regular topic of conversation and concern in our family.

Our saving grace was my dad's union job. No matter what happened with my mom's job, we knew our family would be alright. We knew we would continue to have health insurance. We knew we would not suddenly lose our house. We knew there would be food on the table. It gave my parents and all of us kids peace of mind.

When your family is living paycheck to paycheck or in fear of a health incident that could lead to bankruptcy, it impacts the entire household. It was my dad's union job that enabled our family to thrive. And it's my father's pension and health insurance in retirement that sustain my parents to this day. It's why they don't have to feel like a financial burden to their children or feel weighed down by financial uncertainty.

That is the most essential thing unions do: support working people and families so they can not just survive, but actually thrive.

The share of U.S. workers who belong to a union has been cut in half since I grew up in a union household. In 1983, 20.1% of American workers were union members. In 2022, 10.1% of US workers were in a union. The decline in union density in our country should concern us all. The growing gap between the rich and the poor is also something that should concern us all. The fact that one in four children in New York State lives in poverty should absolutely concern us all.

Poverty, inequality and family instability are not inevitable. And more than anything, it's the sheer size and scope of poverty and inequality here in the United States of America that's the great national tragedy.

Great union jobs are a big part of the solution. Unions help provide families with the ability to thrive and pursue their version of happiness.

We know the impact because we live in one of the most unionized states in the country, so the strength of New York’s unions leads the strength of labor across the nation. Young people especially know the value of the stability, security and dignity that unions can offer. They’re demanding union jobs and not taking no for an answer. This is cause for great hope, but building back union jobs and households will take time and effort. This Labor Day, I'm asking us all to commit to building union strength so more families can thrive.

Follow NYSUT President Melinda Person on Twitter and Facebook.