Inequality & the deline of unions

Posted in Around The Nation, Inequality, jobs, The Economy at 2:47 pm by wcnews

This graphic says a lot.

It comes from EPI, As unions decline, inequality rises.

To a remarkable extent, inequality, which fell during the New Deal but has risen dramatically since the late 1970s, corresponds to the rise and fall of unionization in the United States.

The passage in 1935 of the National Labor Relations Act, which protected and encouraged unions, sparked a wave of unionization that led to three decades of shared prosperity and what some call the Great Compression: when the share of national income taken by the very rich was cut by one-third. The “countervailing power” of labor unions (not just at the bargaining table but in local, state, and national politics) gave them the ability to raise wages and working standards for members and non-members alike. Both median compensation and labor productivity roughly doubled into the early 1970s. Labor unions both sustained prosperity, and ensured that it was shared; union bargaining power has been shown to moderate the compensation of executives at unionized firms.

However, over the next 30 years—an era highlighted by the filibuster of labor law reform in 1978, the Reagan administration’s crushing of the PATCO strike, and the passage of anti-worker trade deals with Mexico and China—labor’s bargaining power collapsed. The consequences are driven home by the figure below, which juxtaposes the historical trajectory of union density and the income share claimed by the richest 10 percent of Americans. Union membership has fallen and income inequality has worsened—reaching levels not seen since the 1920s.

Here’s a video explanation of the graphic, also from EPI.

It’s hard, looking at this information, to understand where the objections to unions come from for working class people. In the context of this reader comment at TPM, Tough Love, Or Actually No Love. The comment focuses on all that is wrong with unions and why they are disagreeable. But at the end talks about how what unions have done and worked for is needed, as well as the need for more.

While I understand that Unions have bettered the lot of all employees, like the 40 hour work week, and occupational safety standards, it is not necessary to have trade unions to improve workers conditions. The conditions for all employees, not just Union workers, can be improved by statute. For example, it is disgraceful that there is no guaranteed vacation for American workers. While for the most part, people are offered vacation days as part of there employment, partly because of the efforts of Unions, why shouldn’t there be a federal or state law mandating a certain amount of PTO tied to how many hours worked? How about having a national labor or industrial policy? These would have a far greater chance of success than trying to revive a nineteenth century institution.

What is obvious there is the disconnect between what’s needed and how to get it. How, in our current system, do we get “a statute”, aka a law passed? Obviously it has to be done by our elected officials. And that means, somehow organizing workers and working class people, to fight, lobby, advocate for these statutes.

The other thing that is obvious from the comment is that most people are sympathetic about the needs of workers and working class people. They just don’t see a viable way of bringing that about. If not unions the what?

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.