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As go the unions, so goes South Dakota’s middle class

Updated: Apr 22

Trump’s attacks on organized labor are making stagnant wages and income inequality worse

We sense in the current administration an overall attack on collective bargaining rights for employees. It has been gaining strength and gaining force.

Mark Young, Executive Vice President AFGE National VA Council, Local 1509

Make America Great Again. The red-hatted rallying cry of Donald Trump’s fervent base yearns to recapture something that Americans once had and then lost. What were the many South Dakotans who voted for Trump in 2016 hoping to regain? In their minds, when was America last great?

The simplest answer: white middle-class prosperity, which hit its peak during the middle of the last century. Abundant good-paying jobs meant plenty of income. American workers and their families could easily buy houses, cars and other consumer goods, which meant more good-paying jobs, more buying power, more opportunity to save for a rainy day. Economic stability, with plenty of time outside work to spend enjoying baseball, hotdogs, Mom and apple pie.

None of it would have been possible without the power of collective bargaining. Greater safety in the workplace. The 40-hour work week. Fair pay for fair work. 

The time of greatest financial prosperity for the greatest number of Americans was also the time of organized labor’s greatest strength in the United States. In 1955, 35% of working Americans were members of a union. The ability of workers to negotiate with their employers as a group rather than individually laid the foundation for the American middle class.

It’s not a coincidence that as union membership rates have fallen since those misty watercolor mid-century boom years, middle-class incomes have fallen by the same rate.  South Dakota’s rate of labor union membership has declined by nearly half since 1983, closely tracking the rate of decrease at the national level.

Trump’s policy actions belie the empty promises he made to fight for hardworking South Dakotans. Workplaces are more dangerous thanks to deregulation and failure to enforce safety rules: the number of OSHA inspectors is the lowest it has ever been, and corporations are no longer required to keep records of worker injuries from year to year. Instead of a promised $1 trillion infrastructure investment that would have created high-paying jobs and fixed South Dakota’s structurally deficient bridges, Trump delivered a $1.5 trillion deficit-exploding tax cut that benefits the wealthiest 1 percent and large corporations.

Public-sector unions, representing employees within government organizations, are the last bulwark of collective bargaining. Their membership rate is five times that of private-sector unions. Not surprisingly, public unions are under unprecedented attack by this administration. Along with moves to roll back rules protecting union activity, such as rolling back the Obama administration’s requirement that employers disclose ties to union-busting legal firms, Trump has taken aim at the National VA Council and its Local affiliates representing VA employees with a trio of executive orders:

  1. Limiting processes of “progressive discipline” in favor of swift dismissals, clearing a path to cast off union activists;

  2. Restricting the use of “official time” that employees an spend on union business, effectively evicting union reps from their office space; and

  3. Fast-tracking contract negotiations and giving a politically appointed panel the power to decide longstanding disputes, 80% of which have ended in favor of management over employees.

The NVAC is the largest Council in the American Federation of Government Employees representing more than 200,000 dues-paying members. 

Mark Young, executive VP of Local 1509, AFGE National VA Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, noted at a recent meeting of Sioux Falls Democratic Forum that chronic shortages of full-time employees in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are hollowing out the capabilities of the VA to serve the healthcare needs of veterans.

Slow-walking the process of filling those positions has opened the door to greater privatization of care. That’s bad news for fiscal conservatives chasing an ideology of improving efficiency and cutting waste. According to the Project on Government Oversight, private contractors deliver comparable services as government agencies at nearly twice the cost.

Young also clarified, the Choice Act of 2014 opened up more access in the private sector since VA wait times were considered excessive and left thousands of Veterans waiting too long, Choice expired in 2019. The Choice Act did not function the way Congress intended according to Young.

Congress followed the expired Act with the more recent VA MISSION Act which created an option for government-funded care to be sought in the private sector beginning in 2020, endangering the jobs of union employees in the federal government’s second-largest department behind Defense. Again, Young feels that the outcome is not what Congress intended.

Today, almost 80% of U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck. That job creation that the president brags about? Most of those are low-wage jobs. The median household income in South Dakota is only 89 percent of the national median, and our families can only manage that with both parents working multiple jobs.

In spite of state “right-to-work” laws like South Dakota’s that allow workers to reap the benefits of union-negotiated contracts without paying dues (“union-free riders”), Gallup polling shows that support for unions is at its highest point in 50 years, and membership in South Dakota unions is climbing back up from its 2013 low point. We already know how to bring back the prosperity that 2016 Trump voters still yearn for but that Trump has failed to deliver. We need to elect leaders willing to put economic power back in the hands of the people who put in the hard work.


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