Workers Explain How Unions Changed Their Lives

Unionization levels have been falling for decades and last year hit a low not seen in a century, with just 11.3 percent of workers represented. That’s the lowest level since 1916. Strikes, one of the greatest sources of power for labor unions, have also become increasingly rare.

That’s bad news for the middle class. In a new video series, the Center for American Progress showcases three stories that demonstrate the important role union membership plays for working families struggling to get by.

La Tonya Johnson was a unionized child care worker in Milwaukee until Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) cracked down on collective bargaining rights in the state:

With the help of a union, La Tonya says she was “able to afford to pay my mortgage, I wasn’t facing foreclosure, and life was relatively comfortable,” thanks to a guaranteed weekly wage regardless of which children actually showed up to her daycare center each day. After her ability to join a union was repealed, she lost that guarantee, and she descended into poverty. “It feels like I’ve hit rock bottom over night,” she says. “For people who think that having a union or being organized doesn’t have a bottom line effect, I’m here to tell you that it does.”

Susan Kim and Jeremy Pikser, writers in New York, explain that a union has helped them to pursue their passions while maintaining a decent quality of life:

While Susan had misgivings at first, she quickly learned the benefits of joining a union. “It made really clear sense to me when I started seeing more money, when I started qualifying for health insurance… Suddenly I had a pension plan which I’d never had before.” The effects were even starker for Jeremy. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2008 and had to undergo an expensive course of treatment, “which would have beyond bankrupted me” without quality health insurance negotiated by the Writers Guild, he says. “It probably did save my life because I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the level of care that I got.”

Beresford Simmons has been driving a New York City taxi for more than 45 years and is a member of the non-traditional union the Taxi Workers Alliance:

The union has seen recent success, winning a 17 percent fare hike and health care coverage. That’s meant a lot to Beresford and his wife. “With unionization from the Taxi Workers Alliance, we could afford to put a roof over our head,” he says. He says he’s a part of the union because “I just don’t want to see the next generation of cab drivers go through the same thing that I’ve been through.”