After a particularly contentious election year, in which well-funded special interests and billionaires from inside and outside the state (including New York City tycoon Michael Bloomberg) sought to portray unions as the enemy of Idahoans, it is important to set the record straight with respect to the historical and present role of labor unions in Idaho and the values and priorities that we stand for.
Some 26 years after the promises of freedom and prosperity offered up by those who waged a nasty and well-financed campaign to institute so-called Right to Work, (RTW) laws, it turns out that those promises never materialized for most Idahoans.
At that time, anti-union activists promised that employers large and small would flock to Idaho, bringing well-paying jobs and diverse industries. Sure, job growth has inevitably occurred given the rapid growth in our states population. But most of the growth has been in low-wage jobs, which has led to a contracting middle class and more Idahoans living on the margin.
A quick look at the numbers tells us what many of us know intuitively from having experienced Idahos growing wage gap and shrinking paychecks. According to the Department of Labor, when RTW was passed in 1986, Idahos average wage was at approximately 87 percent of the national average wage. That percentage has been on a steady decline ever since, having plummeted to an alarming and unacceptable 76 percent of the national average in the last two years. In other words, Idaho workers wages have not kept pace with the rest of the nation.
Idahos median hourly wage was $14.51 in 2011, which puts us 43rd in the country.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2011 that Idaho ranked 10th in the nation in the percentage of workers who are forced to hold down multiple jobs.
Why does all of this matter? Because the role of unions in Idaho is and has always been to advocate for a decent standard of living for people who work hard and play by the rules. We stand up for the rights and general welfare of employees in almost every industry. Furthermore, we vigorously defend the rights of workers in any organization to have a voice in the workplace. We assert the fundamental freedom to associate and organize with colleagues. We do this because ultimately we believe that we are all in this together and that broad-based prosperity and an expanding middle class are what make this country strong.
Todays union movement values economic mobility once a cornerstone of the American Dream. Most hard-working people want to believe that their efforts might earn them the opportunity to climb the economic ladder. A recent study by the Pew Research Center revealed that states with the highest rates of union membership also have the highest rates of economic mobility.
The intent of Right to Work was to weaken, if not put an end to, all union activity in Idaho. What the misguided and deceptive legislation did not do was to remove or even address the conditions that have always given people reason to join unions. Many hard-working Idahoans find themselves without access to what were once considered staples of a middle-class lifestyle: food security, access to health care, time to spend with family, and the ability to retire with dignity.
Idahos unions will continue to advocate for a strong system of public education, vo-tech and other job training opportunities (including private/public partnerships), a diverse and vibrant economy, a proactive approach to economic development, and the freedom of workers to associate and have a voice in the workplace. A strong and growing middle class isnt a partisan issue rather, it is an economic imperative for our country and our great state.
Rian Van Leuven is the president of the Idaho state AFL-CIO.