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Editorial: Unions’ Decline

Income inequality was the signature issue of last fall’s presidential campaign, one that mostly resolved itself into a question of whether the wealthy should be required to pay higher taxes. President Obama said yes, and the voters agreed.

Certainly, redistributing the tax burden upward is one good way to address the issue, but that’s hardly the end of it. Many factors play into rising inequality of income, including globalization, the changing nature of work itself and the pay premium secured by higher education.

One factor that did not receive anywhere near the attention it deserved during the campaign was the role played by the decades-long decline in union membership in America, which some researchers say accounts for fully a third of the growth in income inequality for male workers, and about a fifth for females.

This was brought home by a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which last week documented the rapid acceleration of union decline during the past year. The total number of union members declined by 400,000 during 2012 to 14.3 million. The percentage of workers belonging to unions fell from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent last year, believed to be the lowest level since Woodrow Wilson was president.

In the private sector, the portion of workers belonging to unions fell to just 6.6 percent from 6.9 percent in 2011. (At its peak in the early 1950s, private sector unionization was between 35 and 40 percent. ) Even labor’s citadel in the public sector unions proved vulnerable to layoffs by cash-strapped state and local governments and sieges mounted by Republican lawmakers throughout the country. Union membership among government workers fell from 37 percent in 2011 to 35.9 percent last year.

The other relevant statistic in the bureau’s report is that in 2012, among full-time workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $943, while comparable non-union workers had median weekly earnings of $742.

Of course, improvements in wages, fringe benefits and working conditions secured by unions in their heyday did not flow solely to their members. In many industries, union contracts set the standard as non-union companies sought to remain competitive in the labor market, spreading the wealth indirectly, as it were. Moreover, highly publicized labor negotiations and strikes put a fair division of the economic pie on the national agenda as a legitimate topic of debate.

Hostility to unions, of course, has never abated in corporate America or among its allies in the Republican Party, despite the fact that rising middle class income fuels consumer demand for the products business produces. The current Republican project is to smash the public sector unions, as was evident from Wisconsin to Indiana to New Hampshire in recent years. How successful this has been in changing the national psychology can be inferred from almost any school district meeting in the Twin States where a teachers contract is debated. How many times has the question been asked by hard-working taxpayers, “Why are they getting an X percent raise and health-care benefits when I don’t?” It seems never to occur to these taxpayers to ask themselves why they are not securing the solid benefits of middle-class life that they deserve while union members are. The partial answer lies in the power of collective bargaining.

The decline of unionization also reduces the extent to which workers identify their interests with those of people in similar economic circumstances, and thus undermines any sense of class consciousness and solidarity on political issues across the board.

The reality is that the legal terrain is currently very unfriendly to union organizing. Timothy Noah, a senior editor at the New Republic, wrote last fall that, “The simplest thing government could do to reverse the 33-year growth in income inequality is to make it easier to start and maintain a union.” Doing so might shift much of the burden of looking out for middle class interests from the government to workers themselves, who in turn would have to relearn a lesson from the militant age of the New Deal, which is that you’ve got to fight for what you believe you deserve.