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Opinion: Unions can help America build back better after COVID-19

Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Shuler

This Labor Day, America’s working families are facing unprecedented challenges.

COVID-19 continues to ravage our communities, with thousands falling ill and hundreds dying every day. More than 27 million people are receiving some form of unemployment assistance in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with job losses hitting women and workers of color hardest of all.

Michigan’s unemployment rate has more than doubled what it was in March — and the current anti-worker Senate majority left Washington last month without renewing expanded unemployment benefits that were helping families make ends meet. And with the start of the school year around the corner, parents are struggling to work while coping with remote-learning classrooms and shuttered child-care centers.

Building back better starts with one word: unions, write Harris and Shuler.

Our economy won’t recover until the pandemic is under control — but stopping COVID-19 and returning to the status quo isn’t good enough for American workers. We need to build back better. We need to create more jobs by investing in the industries that make our economy strong, including infrastructure, clean energy, manufacturing and care work — and embed racial justice into the core of our agenda, so our economy at last works for everyone. That will be the priority under a Biden-Harris administration.

Building back better starts with one word: unions. According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers earn 11.2% more income when they are represented by a union, compared to their non-unionized peers in the same industries. That wage benefit is even more significant for workers of color. Black union members are paid almost 14% more, and Latinos are paid 20% more, than equivalent workers who don’t have the benefit of a union fighting for them.

And unions raise wages and benefits for all workers, not just their members. Unions have been able to win hazard pay and workplace protections against COVID-19 — advocacy that has raised standards for non-union workers, too. Firefighters and nurses in Michigan fought for and won state reforms so front-line workers who contract COVID-19 are assumed to have caught it on the job and can qualify for workers’ comp.

The Trump administration has fought against our unions and working people. Instead of investing in infrastructure, like he promised he would, President Donald Trump gave a trillion-dollar tax break to the wealthy and largest corporations. At the behest of his big corporate donors, he has systematically undermined workers’ right to organize, join unions and collectively bargain. Under Trump’s leadership, motor vehicle manufacturing jobs have declined in Michigan despite promising the moon to autoworkers.

And he’s offered no help for working parents, beyond trying to force schools to reopen in unsafe conditions. Make no mistake, our child care crisis predated the pandemic. Our broken child care system had families walking a financial tightrope that held back working mothers and cost our economy billions of dollars a year in lost earnings, productivity and revenue.

We need to build a new caregiving infrastructure that will help unlock opportunity for working parents — especially working mothers — and support our economy as we rebuild from this recession. We’ve done it before — at the height of World War II, the federal government set up child-care centers for as many as 600,000 children, and enabled women to enter the workforce in record numbers. We need to harness the same creativity, resources and determination to build back better from COVID-19.

The AFL-CIO, along with our pro-worker allies, have been fighting for years to prioritize paid family and medical leave and help remove some of the barriers facing working families. American’s labor movement supports easing the squeeze on working families as they raise kids and care for aging loved ones, and treating caregivers and educators with the respect they deserve. And that’s exactly what a Biden-Harris administration will do.

A Biden-Harris administration will make sure that low-income and middle-class families don’t spend more than 7% of their income on child care for kids under five, and create a refundable tax credit of up to $8,000 to help cover after-school, weekend and summer care. It will support members of the sandwich generation, who are caring for young children and aging parents at the same time, by ending Medicaid waiting lists for home- and community-based care and expanding support for informal and family caregivers.

And a Biden-Harris administration will finally make sure we pay caregivers and early childhood educators the good wages and benefits they have earned, and give them the chance to join a union. This summer, after 17 years of trying, 40,000 child-care workers in California voted to form a union with AFSCME and SEIU. That’s an opportunity that should be open to child care workers across the country.

To paraphrase the legendary Black labor leader Addie Wyatt, who made history at the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and later the United Food and Commercial Workers, change can come, but you cannot do it alone — you have to unite with others. It’s time we empower working people and families in Michigan and across the country, and come together to make change happen. It’s time we build back better.

Kamala Harris is the Democratic nominee for vice president. Elizabeth Shuler is secretary-treasurer​​ of the​​​​​ AFL-CIO.