The continuing debate over our economic inequality focuses on globalization and technology. These are seen as the determinants of our transformed economy and rising inequality. Remedies usually focus on better education and more training.
But this explanation largely omits discussion of unions and workers’ power. Americans are already better educated than ever, with high school and college graduation rates at record levels. Rapid technological change is not unique to the present as it occurred in other eras since World War II as well. Globalization, furthermore, is not a force of nature but rather a set of trade, tax, and corporate policies that largely benefit employers.
While most workers are producing more and earning less, corporate profits soar. Last year the pay gap between CEOs and typical workers widened to 373-l. Over the last fifteen years, even college graduates have seen little or no economic gains.
In 2014, only 11 percent of all US workers belonged to a union. Rather than just falling victim to natural causes, unions were assaulted. Beginning in the mid-1970s, corporations launched campaigns depicting unions as obstacles to competition, hired union busting law firms, and convinced Congress to pass laws banning effective union organizing tactics. Multinationals wrote trade and tax rules that facilitated moving jobs abroad and threatening labor at home.
The decline of union bargaining power correlates with the wage stagnation over the last five decades. Besides pushing down the wages of the working class, it also increases the incomes of the wealthiest 10 percent.
In much of America today, work no longer results in a decent paycheck and a rising standard of living. The portion of the economic pie that goes to working people currently stands near the smallest on record since 1947. Similarly the gap between worker pay and labor productivity has widened since the 1970s. In a healthy economy, wages and productivity would rise in tandem, but in recent decades, productivity gains have flowed increasingly to executive compensation and shareholder returns, rather than wages. The low-wage business model has essentially turned public aid into a form of corporate welfare.
Restoring shared prosperity and rebuilding the working and middle classes requires recognizing the role of the workforce in creating wealth. Reviving unions will take new forms of organizing, new alliances, and new thinking. In Los Angeles, a creative union movement helped elect officials who then used government procurement and zoning powers to demand that companies pay decent wages, adhere to labor standards, and end sabotage of worker organizing. In last summer’s fast food walkouts, new alliances with religious and community groups and support from elected officials protected workers and helped enlist consumer support for better wages. In Seattle, unions played a major role in the successful push for the $15.00 minimum wage.
Despite opposition from some employers, conservatives, and public officials, unions have brought diverse voices together, and their struggles have elevated the working conditions, the standard of living, and the recognition of not just their members, but of all who labor. Labor’s power comes not from dollars, but from organizing. Unions’ have the ability to take bold action to defend workers’ rights in the workplace, in the street, and at the ballot box.
The challenge for organized labor is to translate the real dismay about wage stagnation and economic inequality into collective action that raises wages and ensures prosperous companies share more of their profits with their workers. This won’t be easy in today’s entrenched big money politics. The first step is to focus on empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively, and thereby rebuild a strong worker voice in both the workplace and in our politics.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U.S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.