We Need Jobs and a Voice on the Job

When I was in high school and college, I worked in restaurants. I worked for minimum wage and I worked hard—cleaning, cooking, even counting money and making bank deposits. I remember my pay going from $3.35 an hour to $3.45 an hour when I made ‘head cashier’—a job that carried a lot more responsibility than a 10 cent raise would imply.

My second year at UCLA, I got my first union job at a deli/restaurant in West Hollywood. There were some differences that I noticed immediately: grownups worked here, I had enough money to buy my family Christmas presents that year, and after a probationary period I was eligible for health benefits. But most striking of all was the absence of fear. I wasn’t used to working in kitchens where the line cook could talk to the boss when he didn’t agree with a decision. He didn’t always win, but at least he wasn’t afraid to speak up. This made a big impression on me and made me a life-long supporter of unions.

Right now, unions are at the forefront of the movement demanding jobs. They have also been at the forefront of the movement for everything that makes jobs livable for working families: minimum wages, health care, the Family Medical Leave Act, Paid Family Leave in California and the most fundamental—the right to have a voice on the job.

There are Conservative politicians like Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and Representative Ben Quayle of Arizona who seem to be intent on doing away with this most basic right. Representative Quayle is even trying to block a recent NLRB decision that would require employers to post information about employees’ right to join a union. The poster essentially outlines the 1935 National Labor Relations Act stating that employees have the right to “act together to improve wages and working conditions, to form, join and assist a union, to bargain collectively with their employer, and to refrain from any of these activities.”

We are stronger together. This is a basic union principal and it is one that we can lose if we don’t get active in its defense. Unions have a proud history of empowering and mobilizing working people to vote. Many women leaders first found their voices in their unions. And unions have fought for legislation that improves jobs for all workers.

We need jobs. But I worry that the call for “jobs, jobs, jobs” doesn’t get specific enough. The only things that made those first jobs I had doable were the free bed and roof over my head at my parents’ house. How can women—many of whom are single parents or heads of households—work a minimum-wage/no-benefits job (or even two) and support themselves and their families?

We don’t just need jobs. We need jobs that pay a living wage and allow parents to support their families AND be there to nurture them. We need to maintain our right to use our voices, to act together to improve our lives. We need unions.

This blog is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival. Read more HERvotes posts by Ms. and other women’s groups.

Photo from Flickr user Kheel Center, Cornell University under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Ira Oncedem says:

    “When I was in high school and college, I worked in restaurants.” Me too! Never EVER thought I’d make a career of it. Apparently this is true for you too! We have something in common. Union’s have outlived their purpose. There are plenty of laws on the books now that have taken over for the Union. You shouldn’t have to join a Union to work. Yet in many cases the Union as “made it so”. Why?? What about a workers freedom?? Why is it so important to F O R C E everyone to be Union at an establishment?? We all know the T R U T H.

    • A union gives us a place at the table when it comes to our working conditions. How could something like that outlive it’s purpose? Unions help pass the laws that are on the books and they help enforce them in the workplace, too. Without a union, you would have to file a lawsuit when your rights are violated.

      In most cases, you don’t have to join a union to work – I think you are referring to a place that is already unionized. You are right, once a union is in place most workers pay dues. But it should be easy enough to find a non-union restaurant to work in if that is what you prefer – I think plenty would be happy to have benefits and improved working conditions that often come with a union!

      • Actually, it’s not always true that there are laws on the books to protect workers. Many states have absolutely no legal protections against unfair discipline and firing, for instance. Even minimum wage laws aren’t universally enforced, and who can live on the minimum wage anyway?

        Women have the most to gain from unionizing. Women who are union members make, on average, 30% more than women doing the same jobs in a non-union setting. And that’s before you add in health benefits, paid leave,or pensions. Women are more likely to live out their golden years in poverty because few non-union jobs, especially in the service sector, where women are clustered, provide pension benefits.

        Women also make great union leaders, and turn out to be very effective advocates for workers on the job, and in contract negotiations.

        Finally, I’ll say that the writer above is absolutely right that there’s no way there would be paid family leave in California, or even unpaid family leave anywhere in this country without the organized voice of unions. Unions fight for rights like that, even though many of their members have those benefits already. Right now, unions are in the forefront of fighting for paid sick days for all workers – a fundamental human right that’s taken for granted in every other industrialized country in the world.

        There is no other organized constituency fighting for the rights of workers in this country, and there are plenty of organized forces trying to reduce the livelihood and destroy the way of life of millions of American middle class workers.

        We need unions more than we ever have.

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