League of Women Voters

Owe your soul to the company store?


It’s the week after Labor Day. Did you a) buy a mattress or appliance? b) get snarled on busy highways or in airports? c) relax from your labors? And d) hear or read about the state of labor and unions in the U.S.? This isn’t actually a fluffy BuzzFeed quiz. You pick the points you earn from checking off any of those, but if you didn’t read or hear much about labor, then you can give yourself a point for finishing this column.

What we’re talking about when we’re talking about labor transcends employment statistics. We’re discussing labor from the perspective of people, not disembodied economies.

We’re starting with support for unions because unions transformed working conditions, pay rates, time off, and benefits starting as far back as the 1880s (here in Indiana.) But union support slipped from the 1980s until the past few years. Then in 2022 and 2023, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they support unions, according to Gallup polls.

Not that more Hoosiers sought out collective bargaining or joined their local union. Whereas 22% of employed Hoosiers were covered by unions in 1989, only about 9% are presently covered, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2012, Indiana jumped on the Right to Work bandwagon, joining 25 other states where lobbying and educational campaigns against unions had eroded their contribution to bargaining for fair wages, safer working conditions, and benefits such as retirement and healthcare. Fiscal conservatives leaned on the sentiments of Milton Friedman, who wrote in Free to Choose: A Personal Statement that free, meaning unregulated, markets will always sort themselves out and provide better outcomes for the economy.

But “better outcomes for the economy” are not the same as better outcomes for lower and middle-class households. A strong economy doesn’t simply trickle down to small-town Americans. Wages for those socio-economic classes have stagnated since the 1970s compelling many Americans to cobble together a forty-plus-hour work week from multiple part-time jobs.

Many workers lack health insurance because it’s generally tied to having the right kind of job. Costs of healthcare have risen such that we pay higher premiums, have higher deductibles, and accrue more out-of-pocket expenses. Notably, Americans pay more for healthcare and live shorter lives than people in nations with universal healthcare, as Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudann report in their latest book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. In spite of arguments about U.S. innovation in American healthcare, our system is not improving health. Furthermore, Kristoff and Wudann report that low and middle-class Americans diagnosed with cancer depleted their household funds within two years of diagnosis, leaving crushing financial crises for their living loved ones.

Amazingly, aid distributed to households and local governments during the pandemic — from childcare funds to straight-up cash- temporarily eased the crush on working-class families, but that couldn’t last. Money does have to come from somewhere.

It’s why people work. A job that pays well and isn’t dangerous imbues a sense of industriousness and satisfaction and improves psycho-social well-being as much as well-spent leisure time. A job like that exists because ethical organizations listen to the collective needs of their workers. People need to be able to cover their bills and have some left in order not to live in a state of heightened anxiety. All workers deserve work-life balance, that ability to come home ready to engage without job-and-pay-related stress to foster strong relationships with their partners, children, families, friends, and neighbors.

That’s where unions are proven to help.

Consider a recent report on joint training and credentialing partnerships between employers and unions. Those joint partnerships invested more money in apprenticeship training than employer-only programs, as the Midwest Economic Policy Institute reported in 2023. The report from MEPI looked at construction apprenticeships and found that union-employer partnership programs trained more skilled workers than other programs. Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Adam Yahya Rayes reported in August that between 2015 and 2022, 43% of students graduated from union partnerships and earned an average of $31.28 per hour. Graduation rates at Ivy Tech were lower, near 36% during that time, and graduates earned an average hourly wage of $22.60. Employer-only training programs graduated at about the same lower rate as Ivy Tech and earned much less, an average of $17.47 per hour.

Unions transformed lives starting back in the age of the Robber Barons, namely Andrew Carnegie (steel tycoon), Jay Gould (stock market trader), Jim Fisk (cotton trader), John D. Rockefeller (oil tycoon), and Cornelius Vanderbilt (empire of steamboats). Carnegie and Rockefeller made their millions on the broken bodies of their mill workers.

A field trip to a coal mine in Pennsylvania breaks open the stories of the men who bought their own dynamite and brought their young sons to work with them in near pitch-black mines. Young boys had to pay off their family’s debt to the company store when their fathers were blasted to death or injured. Mothers help families eke out a living by working in the silk factories, taking their daughters with them. Visit one of the mining museums in Appalachia and you’ll hear stories from docents whose grandparents were miners. When a man died in the mine, fellow miners deposited his corpse on the front stoop. If he was injured, their friends laid their broken bodies on the kitchen table under the one bare bulb a shack was likely to have, that way the family could see to doctor him.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle chronicles such exploitations in the meat packing industry. Companies sold houses on contract at obscene prices to their workers. Bosses assaulted their female workers, and the jobs were so dangerous that workers were frequently mutilated or killed. First published in serial form in 1905, The Jungle horrified readers, but not for the right reasons. Descriptions of rotting meat contaminated with toxic chemicals, dirt, sawdust, and rat droppings appalled American consumers.

“I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair said, “and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.” Instead of worker protections and unionization, the public called for and got food safety inspections.

Unions saved lives.

Today their work may seem less urgent. Maybe most workers’ conditions seem bearable enough. Then again Texas just enacted a law that prohibits workers from taking extra water breaks. Today, some meat packers wear diapers on the job because they aren’t allowed enough bathroom breaks. Amazon has notoriously tracked every move of workers demanding faster order packing. White-collar workers now have their computers monitored for keystrokes, meetings, and activity so bosses can monitor them every minute.

Maybe people can scrape together enough money to make rent, juggle the bills, and get groceries. Then again, Credit.com found that 73% of Americans die with an average debt of $62,000. Clearly, we aren’t making our budgets, and it’s not just because we aren’t spartan enough.

When financial analyst Kevin Chrissey bemoaned American Airlines giving its workers a raise, saying “Labor is getting paid first. Shareholders get the leftovers,” that’s a wake-up call. The system isn’t working. We need collective bargaining. We shouldn’t die owing our lives to a credit card company, hospital, or corporation.

“When unions get higher wages for their members by restricting entry into an occupation, those higher wages are at the expense of other workers who find their opportunities reduced. When government pays its employees higher wages, those higher wages are at the expense of the taxpayer. But when workers get higher wages and better working conditions through the free market, when they get raises by firm competing with one another for the best workers, by workers competing with one another for the best jobs, those higher wages are at nobody’s expense. They can only come from higher productivity, greater capital investment, more widely diffused skills. The whole pie is bigger ­— there’s more for the worker, but there’s also more for the employer, the investor, the consumer, and even the tax collector.

That’s the way the free market system distributes the fruits of economic progress among all people. That’s the secret of the enormous improvements in the conditions of the working person over the past two centuries.”


The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.