Fifty years ago today, on September 13, 1968, New Jersey public employees gained the legal right to collectively bargain with their employers. The politics around labor rights were very different then; the Public Employment Relations Act that granted those rights had been vetoed by Gov. Richard Hughes, a Democrat. That veto was overridden by the Republican-controlled Legislature to cement a major milestone for the rights of working people in New Jersey. It established the legal principle that New Jersey public employees have the right to form unions and bargain together over their salary, benefits and working conditions.
It’s remarkable that anyone would object to that or find it controversial. However, the ongoing effort by the ultra-wealthyand their array of special interest groups to undermine those rights shows that they are still terrified of empowered, organized working people who are not afraid to speak up and exercise their rights. And if their desire is to protect the economic status quothat continues to consolidate wealth at the top while hard-working people struggle to make ends meet, then they should fear workers organized into unions. But for those of us who believe in a fair and level playing field, with economic justice for all people, unions are as vital and relevant as they were half a century ago.
In New Jersey and elsewhere, unions have proven to be the most effective vehicle for working people to level the economic playing field. Historically, when America’s unions have been strongest, the wealth gap has been narrowest. Union membership peaked in the decade after World War II, when roughly one out of three workers was in a union. During that time, the share of national income going to the top 10 percent was about 33 percent. In the decades since, as union membership dropped, the wealth disparity grew. In 2015, when 11 percent of the workforce was unionized, nearly half of all income flowed up to the top 10 percent.
Even as obstacles have been put in the way of workers trying to unionize, though, unions have continued to prove their value. On average, the wages of workers covered by union contracts are more than 13 percent higher than equivalent workers not represented by unions. Unions also play an important role in reducing the wage gaps that result from discrimination against women and people of color, in part due to the transparency and fairness of paying employees based on a negotiated contract. And unions don’t benefit only their own members. Where unions are strongest, non-union workers benefit from higher wages as well.
Beyond just salary, unions provide other important advantages. Unionized workers are organized and effective advocates for safe and healthy working conditions. In the case of NJEA members, that’s doubly important because our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions and they deserve safe healthy school. We are proud to use our union voice to advocate for our students wellbeing. Unions are also effective at ensuring their members have access to things like paid sick leave, employer provided health insurance and secure, reliable pensions that are much less common when employees do not bargain collectively with their employers.
For all of those reasons, the recent ruling by the US Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME was a blow to the wellbeing of working people in America. The lawsuit was funded by the same wealthy special interests that oppose the minimum wage, paid sick leave and workplace safety regulations in the private sector. It was an attempt to weaken public sector unions, which continue to advocate on behalf of all working people.
But while those special interests got the ruling they wanted from the Supreme Court, they are finding it much more difficult to convince union members to give up the collective voice that has brought those higher salaries, better benefits, safer worksites and retirement security. New Jersey public employees of an earlier generation fought long and hard to win those rights in 1968. And New Jersey public employees in this generation are not going to let anyone take them away from us, in 2018 or ever.
Marie Blistan is a teacher of students with special needs in Washington Twp., Gloucester County, and president of the 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association.