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EDITORIAL: American laborers face uphill climb, including at Rutgers

Unions exist to serve low-income workers who tend to get trampled by big business. Many Rutgers professors are union members.
Photo by The Daily TargumUnions exist to serve low-income workers who tend to get trampled by big business. Many Rutgers professors are union members.

This past weekend we celebrated Labor Day in the United States.

Between the (socially distanced) barbecues and other celebratory rituals, it is important to acknowledge the importance of labor in the U.S. economic and cultural life, especially considering the plight of essential workers in the age of coronavirus (COVID-19) disease.

Essential workers have dealt with the brunt of economic and social disruption in 2020.

“Recent estimates suggest that low-income workers, nonwhite workers, workers with less educational attainment and workers in service occupations are all less likely to be able to work from home than their peers. Workers who have continued to go into their workplaces — whom we now call ‘essential’ and ’frontline’ — have been instrumental in keeping the economy running,” according to the Brookings Institution.

But lower income laborers had problems well before the coronavirus pandemic, and they were just as important to the function of society then. 

The workers we depend on to keep American life running are often denied adequate pay, parental leave and the ability to unionize and safe working conditions. Many of the conditions late-19th century labor rights activists fought again persist, albeit in less blatant ways. 

These problems also extend to our hyper-local community. Part-time lecturers (PTLs), a critical part of the Rutgers community (they make up approximately 30 percent of undergraduate instruction), were adversely impacted by a hiring freeze enacted over the summer.

“Rutgers University announced a hiring freeze on April 2 in an email sent to staff, a measure which could result in less (PTL) working at the University next semester. Rutgers state funding has been cut due to the coronavirus disease outbreak, impacting the University’s revenue, according to University spokesperson Dory Devlin,” according to The Daily Targum.

Rutgers, much like other large corporations, does not give its lower income workers a fair share. Some PTLs expressed their concerns about the hiring freeze.

“Speaking generally, people are scared. People are really, really scared. People who count on this money and counted on those appointments for good reason feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under them, and they legitimately have no idea what their employment is going to look like in the fall,” said David Winters, acting vice president of the PTL Faculty Chapter of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT), according to the Targum.

There are many ways Rutgers, and other businesses that treat their lower level employees poorly, can redeem themselves. Offering living wages, hazard pay, substantial health benefits, paid parental leave and the ability to unionize are many ways to mitigate the ills and economic plight associated with low-level work.

But businesses, including Rutgers, would never provide those rather expensive employee benefits without being forced to, so this issue can only truly be solved with government intervention. Our legislators must write into law that corporations, at least large corporations, must provide these benefits to their workers, particularly the ability to unionize.

By allowing unions to operate, employees gain serious power over their employers, and from there, can demand the other benefits aforementioned.

“A union, simply put, is when employees — usually lower to middle-level workers at any given firm — group together to gain a certain amount of leverage over the higher level employees of their company. By unionizing, employees hold more power than they would over upper-management if they were operating as individual units,” according to the Targum.

Unfortunately, the corporate-influenced government has been involved in anti-union activity for decades. Provoking the government to promote workers’ right to unionize is no easy task, but there are still things you, as an individual in the New Brunswick community, can do.

There are many unions that Rutgers professors are part of, the largest being the AAUP-AFT. On its website, you can find ways to support them, including subscribing to email alerts, attending events or joining them in strikes and protests.

On a broader level, you can always call your representative or write them a letter explaining the importance of unions. This can also be done with local politicians, who are more malleable and aware of their immediate community, and less likely to be chained to big money.

To celebrate Labor Day, give back to laborers and essential workers who make life possible. Fight for their cause, their rightful pay, their parental and health benefits and for their right to unionize. It is easy to enjoy a family barbecue, but harder to fight for what is right — but that does not mean you should not do so.

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The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 152nd editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.