Latinos aren’t the first group that comes to mind in a discussion about unions, especially with regards to a rust-belt state such as Michigan. But it turns out that Latinos are disproportionately affected, and not in a good way, by the diminishing strength of unions.
Latinos are concentrated in non-union friendly right to work states. This might lead to the temptation to see the issue of unions as non-relevant to Latinos, given that states such as Texas, Florida, and Nevada fall into this category. However, the fact that the majority of Latinos find themselves in states that are not union friendly makes the push for keeping the voice of unions strong even more pressing.
Labor unions are an economic safeguard providing higher wages and benefits to workers. According to the Bureau of Labor, in 2011 full-time unionized workers earned on average $938 a week, while their non-unionized counterparts earned $729.
Union employees are also more likely to receive benefits such as health care and retirement that in turn allows hourly wage earners access to the middle class.
Unions have secured middle class livelihoods for millions of Americans. But today, the issue reaches beyond that of the middle class. Union jobs are a critical safeguard for workers, especially minorities, falling further into poverty. Put differently, for workers of color who have been on the short end of the racial wealth gap union protection is the difference between making ends meet or going without those winter coats for your kids.
The economic and educational profile of Latinos leads them to be the most in need of wage and benefit protections. Latinos were the hardest hit by the Great Recession. Latino wealth plummeted by 66 percent while the distribution of wealth within the Latino community itself became further skewed.
Close to six years after the onset of the Great Recession, Latino unemployment remains in the double digits. And while Latinos are making strides in educational attainment, they still remain the group with the lowest educational attainment and the highest dropout rates. As a result we see Latinos disproportionately concentrated in low wage jobs.
Because of these compounded disadvantages, Latinos find themselves more in need of unions, not less. Already at the low-end of the wage scale, Latinos absent union protection are particularly vulnerable to further wage cuts. Yvanna Cancela, political director of Culinary Union Local 226 based in Las Vegas, Nevada points out that “wage cuts are disproportionately affecting Latinos who are more likely than non-Latinos to work in the leisure and hospitality sector.” She goes on to highlight that as a result she is seeing “many service worker employees who have no other option but to go on public assistance to make ends meet.”
It is ironic that the political forces that fiercely oppose public assistance are the same that are undermining unions, ultimately leading to an increased reliance on the social safety net. Americans of all racial and ethnic groups deserve fair and competitive wages. Unions ensure the provision of these wages and promote individual self-reliance.
The current right-to-work debate in Michigan is not limited to its borders or to its residents. The fate of Michigan’s unions will largely determine the viability of unions throughout the country and by extension will have a profound effect on Latinos. The traditional profile of the union worker has changed over the decades to include men and women of various backgrounds. But what remains the same is the need to protect the strength of unions that in turn are the voice of millions of working Americans.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.