Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What have unions done for us?

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
September 4, 2012 -- Updated 1203 GMT (2003 HKT)
Donna Brazile says union-trained military veterans are helping to rebuild New York's World Trade Center complex.
Donna Brazile says union-trained military veterans are helping to rebuild New York's World Trade Center complex.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile: Unions have done much to improve the lives of most Americans
  • She says they do community service, help raise wages, improve working conditions
  • Brazile: Union membership helps boost the living standard of the middle class

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

(CNN) -- What have unions done for us lately? Other than give us Labor Day, and a three-day weekend to start football season.

The answers may surprise you.

Unions have long been part of our nation's history, fighting for better pay, safer working conditions, health care and retirement benefits, education and civic participation. Unions have brought diverse voices together, and their struggles have elevated the working conditions, the standard of living and the recognition of not just their members, but of all who labor.

Unions played a major role in ending the sweatshops and child labor so common at the beginning of the 20th century. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, or ILGWU, was one of the first unions to have a primarily female membership. And in the aftermath of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which more than 100 mostly young immigrant women were killed, the ILGWU was at the forefront of reforming working conditions and pushing for comprehensive safety and workers' compensation laws.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Unions aren't a "thing of the past." They're a vital part of our social fabric and economic future. Did you know, for example, that unions run the largest career training program outside the military? Union apprenticeship programs generally partner with employers or industries to provide the kind of training that hard-wires excellence into workers and places them in good jobs that can support families. That's worth a lot when unemployment is stubbornly high and personal incomes are falling. I challenge you to watch this quick video about union-trained military vets who are rebuilding the World Trade Center without getting misty-eyed.

Did you know that union letter carriers save lives all the time by alerting officials when an elderly person hasn't collected her mail from the mailbox? That firefighters are fighting breast cancer? That in Erie, Pennsylvania, union members arranged haircuts for more than 700 kids going back to school?

In just about every community, the union movement partners with the United Way, and together they do amazing things -- from cleaning up after storms to building wheelchair ramps and running food banks.

Union reform goes national?
GOP: Donor disclosure act omits unions

Unions have had their problems -- what organizations do not? -- and it's convenient for some politicians to belittle the contribution or usefulness of unions. Indeed, much of the public has lost touch with what unions do and who they are. Unions are just folks -- people who come together to improve their lives and their workplaces, because there's strength in numbers.

The one thing the public does know is that union members, thanks to collective bargaining, have higher wages and better benefits. But union membership actually raises living and working standards for all working men and women -- union and non-union. When union membership rates are high, so is the share of income that goes to the middle class. When those rates fall, income inequality grows -- the middle class shrinks and the 1% gets richer.

Collective bargaining affects more than wages and benefits. Union teachers bargain for smaller class sizes. Union nurses bargain for better patient care. When they're successful -- when they're not shut down by Scott Walker-type governors -- we all win.

Working together, union members and their community allies also make up a powerful lobby for the common good. They've helped secure for us all the eight-hour day, job safety laws, overtime pay, Medicare and Social Security, civil rights protections, fair treatment for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers and much more.

These are some of the reasons even people who don't fit the stereotypes of union members have formed unions. Rocket scientists. Architects. Taxi drivers in New York, who are getting health care for the first time.

Carwash workers in Los Angeles. Professional athletes. Writers and directors for TV shows. Go to a movie and you're enjoying the work of one of America's most unionized industries, from the actors and camera crews to set designers.

But maybe the most important contribution of unions has to do with basic dignity. Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers, aspiring to become American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees members, picked up signs that declared proudly, "I Am a Man," and formed the setting for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech.

One of the core tenets of unionism is that all work has dignity. All work deserves respect. And all the people who perform it deserve respect.

So even as Labor Day weekend recedes, say "thank you" to someone whose work you respect and rely on. And thank a union for the weekend while you're at it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
ADVERTISEMENT