The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans agree on one thing. Unions matter.

General Motors workers along the west side of the GM Powertrain Plant in Toledo. The United Auto Workers union is leading its first strike against the automaker since 2007. (J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

Once, as a striking union member, I put a sign on my 10-pound Yorkshire terrier that read: Only dogs should accept bones.

Walking that picket line with no paycheck coming was scary, and yet it was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done.

The union mattered then, and it does now. In collective bargaining, there is power.

Right now, about 49,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union are on strike against General Motors. It’s the union’s first walkout against the No. 1 U.S. automaker in over a decade, according to the Associated Press.

The union points out that GM workers gave up pay raises and made other concessions to help the automaker recover from its 2009 bankruptcy. And now that the company is making record profits, employees want to share in the upside. They want affordable health care, job security and a path to permanent seniority for temporary workers.

In an interview with AP, one Michigan GM employee said he’s fighting for his co-workers: “It’s not right when you’re working next to someone, doing the same job and they’re making a lot more money. They should be making the same as me. They’ve got families to support.”

Read: GM walkout brings factories and warehouses to a standstill

“Negotiations have resumed,” GM said in a statement. “Our goal remains to reach an agreement that builds a stronger future for our employees and our business.”

Next month, more than 80,000 employees of Kaiser Permanente may follow their auto union brethren. Unless a contract is signed, the workers will stage a nationwide, seven-day strike on Oct. 14.

Kaiser Permanente made more than $5.2 billion in profits during the first half of 2019, according to the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which is composed of labor groups in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland and the District.

“There is no reason for Kaiser to let a strike happen when it has the resources to invest in patients, communities and workers,” said Eric Jines, a radiologic technologist at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Bernard Tyson, Kaiser’s chief executive, issued a statement complaining that the union set a date for the strike in “an overt effort to gain leverage in bargaining.”

Teachers across the country have been walking off their jobs or calling in sick in protest for smaller classes, better wages and more resources to help their students.

GM, Kaiser, teachers — workers are increasingly standing up and striking for themselves.

About 485,200 workers were involved in major work stoppages in 2018, the highest figure since 1986, reported The Washington Post’s Andrew Van Dam.

Read: Teacher strikes made 2018 the biggest year for worker protest in a generation

In fact, union approval is near a 50-year high, according to a Gallup poll released last month. Sixty-four percent of Americans approve of labor unions, up 16 percentage points from a 2009 low.

“Higher public support for unions in the past few years likely reflects the relatively good economic conditions in place, particularly low unemployment,” Gallup said.

The lowest union approval rating was from 2009 through 2012, a time marked by the Great Recession and years of high unemployment afterward, Gallup said.

It’s not that workers want to strike. It should be a last-resort negotiating tactic.

But if I may speak for other union workers, we get it, corporate America. Making a profit is increasingly hard when global competitors can get cheap labor. But at the same time, the folks who contribute a great deal to helping you make those profits ought to share in the profitability upswing.

We certainly catch a bad break in the economic downswings. Even if you survived a layoff, it’s hard watching co-workers walk out with their boxed belongings. Or, you may have a pension but new hires don’t.

So, as former labor secretary Robert Reich wrote in a post for Salon: “If you have a job, join a union. And if you don’t have a union, start one.”

Reich says it’s all about power. Management has most of it. They set the rules and the pay raises — if there are any. But being in a union can help balance this power dynamic.

“As an individual your voice is limited, but there is power in numbers,” Reich wrote. “Today, unions are more important than ever to the survival of the middle class.”

Color of Money Question of the Week

Do unions still matter? Send your comments to Please include your name, city and state. Put “Union Power” in the subject line.

Read more:

The historic strikes and protests by teachers across the country aren’t over

Unions could make a comeback — if we help them

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Student Loan Crisis

Last week’s topic for the newsletter was the growing student loan debt — now standing at $1.6 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.

“The student loan debt should have been addressed long before now,” wrote Valerie Brown from Pikesville, Md.

Read: There seems to be no end to the rise in student loan debt

Brown is right. But I asked: Who do you blame for the increase in student loan debt?

Phillip Zemke of Milan, N.Y. wrote, “The question is really, who is profiting? The interest rates seem onerous for an essential loan for something that may or may not have a market value.”

“I borrowed over $100,000 to obtain two degrees,” wrote Mike Worden of Houston. “I alone am responsible for that amount. I would encourage soon to be and current college students to read Vicki Robin’s ‘Your Money or Your Life.’ I wish I had read and acted upon the author’s advice when I was going to college (both as a traditional college student and later as a more determined nontraditional student). If I had, I might not still owe $40,000 in consolidated student loan debt. But the choice to take the debt on was mine and mine alone.”

Read my review of Robin’s book: How much money do you really need to feel rich?

The blame falls on everyone involved,” wrote Casandra from Nashville. “I accepted the student loans so that I could earn a good living. I’ve had to place my loan in forbearance a couple of times due to loss of income. I do not remember ever knowing what interest rate I signed up for over 20 years ago but right now the almost 6% interest that I am being charged is ridiculous. Sadly, I will be taking these loans into retirement or not retiring at all.”

Chuck Yanus of Crossville, Tenn. wrote, “Who is responsible for the student debt ‘crisis’? I would say all the actors involved — the schools with their outrageous cost structures, the lending institutions that charge ridiculous rates during low interest times, the government, which should not even be in the education funding business, and yes, the students and parents who take out those loans without considering the real, bottom line costs. Is it a tremendous burden for the people who signed a contract to repay those loans? Absolutely, but so is the burden associated with repaying a mortgage, or a car loan, or some other personal loan.”

Color of Money Columns This Week

Knowledge isn’t power.

The right knowledge is power. Stay informed about your money.

In addition to this newsletter, please read and share my weekly personal finance columns.

College degrees don’t always prepare applicants for a job. Employers demand them anyway.

You’ve stopped working. Now go out and make money.

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