In the entire history of the United States, there was only one era when working-class wages rose by as much as the incomes of professionals and managers: 1947 to 1973.
That was the only time when more than 25 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union. Those were the golden years when Detroit's unionized workers gave the city the greatest concentration of home ownership in the country – until we were surpassed by Los Angeles, with its large population of unionized aerospace workers.
The working families who built Michigan's middle class now want to rebuild it.
Last week, we began to collect signatures to change the state constitution to protect collective bargaining rights. The amendment would guarantee the right to form, join or help labor organizations and to bargain collectively with a public or private employer.
Supporters of the amendment, the “Protect Our Jobs” coalition, must collect 300,000 signatures by July to put it on the November ballot.
I'm sure we'll succeed because so many Michiganians are falling out of the middle class. Working people in our state will sign the petition because they so desperately need to protect their wages, their benefits and their voice in the workplace.
They'll sign because they've seen CEOs arbitrarily move plants to Mexico or China when their workers don't have the protection of a union contract. They'll sign because they know workers who don't belong to a union have absolutely no say when the CEO slashes wages or benefits. And they'll sign because CEOs can unilaterally fire non-union American workers just to make the quarterly earnings statement look better.
Nonunion workers will sign because most of them would join a union if they could.
Without constitutional protection for collective bargaining, workers are at the mercy of politicians who owe their election to CEOs and Wall Street billionaires. We've seen that in the past year, when extremist politicians in Lansing passed one anti-worker bill after another.
They cut wages, health care benefits, retirement security and safety protections. They moved bills to weaken teacher unions and to eliminate the rights of teaching assistants to organize.
Meanwhile, our elected representatives cut $1.8 billion in taxes to the multinationals least in need of tax relief: banks, insurers and oil companies.
These corporate giveaways and political attacks on unions do nothing to create good jobs that support a family. What they do is enrich the 1 percent and make it easier to replace our once-strong middle class with non-union, low-wage workers.
The same CEOs and Wall Street billionaires who fund anti-worker politicians in Lansing will pay for fierce and clever opposition to a constitutional amendment.
They'll say that unions are shrinking because they're obsolete in a global economy where American workers have to compete against low-wage, non-union workers. What they won't say publicly is that they want American workers to accept a lower standard of living.
They also won't mention that countries like Germany have both strong economies and strong labor unions – even though they compete in the same global economy we do.
A constitutional amendment to protect the right to organize will rebuild our economy. It will also help small businesses, local communities, government workers and just about any Michiganian who depends on a paycheck to live.
Because it isn't a rising tide that lifts all boats – it's a union tide.
I urge all working families to get involved by gathering signatures. Learn more at www.protectourjobs.com.
(This was originally published in The Detroit News on March 14, 2012).
Editor’s note: the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council urges workers who want to sign or distribute “Protect our Jobs” petitions to contact their local union.