Unions built the middle class and Biden is strengthening unions

Graphic by Desiree Tapia, photograph courtesy of Ricardo Sanchez

By Ricardo Sanchez

October 11, 2023

“When more workers of all races and all backgrounds are unionized, wages are higher for everyone,” union worker Ricardo Sanchez writes. “Here in Milwaukee, that’s exactly what my union brothers and sisters and I are trying to do – and thankfully, with the support of a pro-labor administration in the White House.”

Workers of Hispanic and Latino heritage help form the backbone of our nation’s blue collar workforce, making up nearly 36% of the construction workforce in the United States. But Hispanic workers are too often stuck with the lowest-paying construction careers or face obstacles in joining the unions that provide economic security in these industries. 

This disparity in construction does not only harm Hispanic workers; it weakens the market share of unions in the construction industry, keeping wages lower for all workers. That’s why it’s so important to ensure union apprenticeships are advertised to and accessible to workers of all races. 

Before I started instructing and recruiting for my union, no one on our local union staff was fluent in Spanish. For many of my union brothers and sisters who identify as Hispanic or Latino – a full third of our local membership – this could sometimes create challenges, whether in learning the specialized terms of our trade or in raising concerns about workplace conditions. It also limited our recruitment efforts among non-union workplaces, where many workers are native Spanish-speakers as well. 

So when I joined the staff of the International Union of Painters & Allied Trades – District Council 7 back in 2017, I made it a priority to expand our accessibility for native Spanish speakers. 

I’m bilingual, so today I’m able to teach our apprentices in English or Spanish (or both), depending on their needs and preferences. And when I visit non-union job sites to talk to workers and employers about the benefits of unionization, I can field questions in either language. Being able to address worker concerns in Spanish has helped our union expand and diversify our membership.

When more workers of all races and all backgrounds are unionized, wages are higher for everyone. That makes the middle class – and our entire economy – stronger. Here in Milwaukee, that’s exactly what my union brothers and sisters and I are trying to do – and thankfully, with the support of a pro-labor administration in the White House. 

In the past year, we’ve received tremendous support for our efforts from the federal government. Funds from the Biden administration to support apprenticeship programs are providing the money needed to get new workers to join our union.

RELATED: A Milwaukee Father and Son on How Union Work Changed Their Lives

In the past, apprenticeships in the trades have not been equally accessible to everyone, but today, these funds are really opening doors for a lot of people. And that’s important because we’re not just offering jobs; we’re offering careers with a livable wage and the promise of benefits such as health insurance and a pension.

Federal support for apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs does not just mean new opportunities for individual workers; it’s also critical to growing the skilled trades workforce, which is seeing many workers retire at the same time that there’s record demand for our services. 

This demand for skilled tradespersons is due in large part to the Biden administration’s expansive economic investments in our nation’s infrastructure, energy, and manufacturing. Importantly, the language of these investments makes sure that these projects employ as much union work as possible – or that non-union contractors at least have to pay their workers fair and competitive wages. 

The approach of the Biden administration – funding projects across the country and investing in the workforce that will turn these funds into physical infrastructure – is strategic. It’s refreshing to see an administration in the White House that is working to complement our union’s efforts at the local level to bring in new workers and make sure that our apprenticeships are accessible to anyone willing to put in the work. 

The middle class was at its strongest here in the United States when unionization was at its highest, in the mid-20th century. That is not a coincidence. Today, we have an historic opportunity to recreate that success for the middle class – and to make it more inclusive for all. 

The Biden administration’s approach – growing the economy by growing the middle class – is already having positive effects here in Wisconsin. And to have a President in the White House who not only says the word “union”, but is willing to stand with unions on the picket line – that is indicative of the progress we have already made, as well as the hope the future holds for workers. When unions grow stronger, so does the middle class. It’s that simple. 

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