In 2002, Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Geoghegan wrote in The Nation, "The underlying reason for organized labor's decline is that our labor laws do not let people join unions, freely and fairly, without being fired." The authors urged "a new approach to rebuilding unions – and to labor law reform….The first step…should be to create a form of membership accessible to any worker."
As the assault on labor continues, the need to strengthen labor rights remains more critical than ever. According to the labor advocacy group American Rights at Work, every year 23,000 Americans are fired or penalized for legal union activity. Our country is increasingly a place where, in Senator John Edwards' words, you can still work hard and live poor.
The urgency to think creatively and find other forms of worker protection couldn't be more clear. As Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says, "Given the level of churning and layoffs, there is a need for workers organizations that exist outside the workplace, industry, occupation."
Enter United Professionals (UP). Ehrenreich has now founded this nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for white collar workers. UP's mission is to protect and preserve the American middle class, now under attack from so many directions, from downsizing and outsourcing to the steady erosion of health and pension benefits. For a besieged middle class, the arrival of UP is timely and welcome news.
"The rap among policy elites is that once you're college educated your problems are over," says Bernstein, who serves as an UP advisory board member. "You are now officially insulated from any of the pressures of the global economy, the health care problem, job insecurity. Unfortunately, that's wrong, and white collar workers recognize that these challenges no longer only befall those in the factory sector, who've been getting whacked by globalization for years."
In fact, according to PR Newswire, 31 percent of college educated workers have no employer based health coverage, and 39 percent have no employer-provided retirement plan. More than half of the non-union workforce tells pollsters they would like to be part of some type of collective bargaining entity. "While white collar workers may not have a union orientation," Bernstein says, "many recognize that forces such as global offshoring have diminished their bargaining clout."
Last week, Paul Krugman wrote in a New York Times op-ed that, "What we should be debating is why technological and economic progress has done so little for most Americans, and what changes in government policies would spread the benefits of progress more widely. An effort to shore up middle-class health insurance… would be a good place to start."
That's exactly what UP envisions. The group hopes to open chapters in 25 states in the next year and begin lobbying Congress for universal health insurance and mandated severance pay for laid-off workers.
"We can do more than give unemployed workers a forum to gripe," Ehrenreich told the New York Times. "UP can help them form regional or sector networks that meet regularly and work with community groups, labor coalitions, and each other…. We can design safety nets around insurance and similar supports that motivate others to join."
If UP successfully rallies and organizes the middle class to fight for universal health insurance, that alone will be a momentous victory. "Once you universalize health care access, you immediately improve the quality of jobs by circumventing the increasingly dysfunctional employer-provided system," Bernstein says.
At 10 cents a day, UP membership represents a rare bargain for the American worker in today's skewed-for-the-wealthy economy. Click here for more info, including how to sign up.