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Solidarity Against Despair

A new study finds that higher union density corresponds to fewer deaths by overdose and suicide. Combatting “deaths of despair” is a tall order, but growing the labor movement and expanding unions’ culture of solidarity throughout our society can help.

Union members at the Culinary Workers Union Hall Local 226 on November 5, 2018 in Las Vegas, NV. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Drug overdoses in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Suicides in Montana and Alaska. Alcohol deaths in New Mexico and South Dakota. The rise in these types of mortality is so dramatic that the mainstream media has recently adopted a new term for them: “deaths of despair.”

A recent report published by the Commonwealth Fund found that deaths of despair are surging across the country. Most strikingly, in eleven states drug overdose deaths tripled in just twelve years, owing mostly to the opioid epidemic.

After steadily rising for six decades, life expectancy is now declining in the United States. The main culprit, according to the authors of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is midlife mortality “caused by drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides, and a diverse list of organ system diseases.” These deaths of despair are concentrated among the working class, which has seen its wages stagnate, its debt balloon, its living costs skyrocket, and its options narrow over the last half-century.

Now that the extent of the problem has been widely recognized, the discussion must turn to solutions. One is obvious: we need a Medicare-for-All program that covers mental health care for those experiencing depression, as well as treatment and recovery options for those suffering from drug and alcohol dependency and abuse.

But there’s another solution to consider: unions.

A new study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine finds that higher union density corresponds to fewer deaths by overdose and suicide. The takeaway here is clear: if we want to reverse the present life expectancy trend we need to rebuild the US labor movement.

The study’s authors begin by reviewing scholarship demonstrating that declining union density has been a major contributing factor to rising economic inequality and sinking living standards for the working class in the United States. The percentage of US workers in unions reached its peak in the early 1950s, at over a third of the workforce. By early 1980s, it was down to about 27 percent, and today it’s dwindled to about 10 percent.

Corresponding to the decline in union density is a widening economic gap. This is only logical: the lower union density is, the more powerful the rich and corporations become, and the less protected working people are from exploitation for profit.

Most obviously, unions provide direct protection for their members by giving them the option to band together and bargain for better wages, working conditions, and benefits. Every working person is by definition less powerful than their boss, but together they are a force to be reckoned with. But the benefits of unions aren’t restricted to members alone: high union density has an overall fortifying effect on the working class.

Because unions are capable of “regulating the balance of power between the working class and owning class,” the study’s authors write, high union density can “improve working-class health by advancing economy-wide compensation norms, labor rights, and progressive social protections and public-health programs, reducing material deprivation and psychosocial stressors throughout the working class.”

It’s common sense that reducing material deprivation and psychosocial stressors makes for healthier, happier people and therefore results in a reduction in deaths of despair. That was the authors’ hypothesis, and their research bears it out. Specifically, their models found that a 10 percent increase in union density corresponded to a 17 percent relative decrease in mortality from overdose and suicide.

It follows that in order to halt the rise of deaths of despair, we need to rebuild union density. This will be an uphill battle: the neoliberal assault on labor unions, begun in earnest nearly fifty years ago, has been a smashing success.

But there are promising signs that it’s possible. The popularity of unions is as high as it’s been in the last half-century. A strike wave popped off in the public sector in 2018, and increased strike activity followed in the private sector too. And one of the frontrunners for the Democratic Party nomination is Bernie Sanders, who is campaigning on a program to repeal anti-union legislation and double union membership.

If more workers join unions, they’ll be able to fight harder on behalf of themselves and their entire class. That will result in greater power in society for working-class people and material gains that have the potential to ameliorate the conditions that give rise to despair.

And that’s not all. Workers in unions — especially democratic, member-driven, fighting unions — also find themselves in the embrace of unique institutions that are fundamentally predicated on the idea of solidarity. The concept at the heart of unionism is that workers rise and fall together. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” goes the old industrial union motto. The corollary is that a better future for one will only be achieved in the struggle for a better future for all.

Solidarity is intrinsically social. It is synonymous with mutual respect and recognition of mutual dependence. In practice it engenders fellowship and community. Solidarity by definition cuts against isolation, lightening the burden of emotional hardship. The more solidarity we can build into our culture, the less despairing we’ll be.