Happy Labor Day! There Has Never Been a Middle Class Without Strong Unions
Jon Schwarz reports in The Intercept:
The entire Republican party and the ruling heights of the Democratic Party loathe unions. Yet they also claim they want to build a strong U.S. middle class.
This makes no sense. Wanting to build a middle class while hating unions is like wanting to build a house while hating hammers.
Sure, maybe hammers — like every tool humans have ever invented — aren’t 100 percent perfect. Maybe when you use a hammer you sometimes hit your thumb. But if you hate hammers and spend most of your time trying to destroy them, you’re never, ever going to build a house.
Likewise, no country on earth has ever created a strong middle class without strong unions. If you genuinely want the U.S. to have a strong middle class again, that means you want lots of people in lots of unions.
The bad news, of course, is that the U.S. is going in exactly the opposite direction. Union membership has collapsed in the past 40 years, falling from 24 percent to 11 percent. And even those numbers conceal the uglier reality that union membership is now 35 percent in the public sector but just 6.7 percent in the private sector. That private sector percentage is now lower than it’s been in over 100 years.
Not coincidentally, wealth inequality – which fell tremendously during the decades after World War II when the U.S. was most heavily unionized – has soared back to the levels seen 100 years ago.
The reason for this is straightforward. During the decades after World War II, wages went up hand in hand with productivity. Since the mid-1970s, as union membership has declined, that’s largely stopped happening. Instead, most of the increased wealth from productivity gains has been seized by the people at the top.
Even conservative calculations show that if wages had gone up in step with productivity, families with the median household income of around $52,000 per year would now be making about 25 percent more, or $65,000. Alternately, if we could take the increased productivity in time off, regular families could keep making $52,000 per year but only work four-fifths as much – e.g., people working 40 hours a week could work just 32 hours for the same pay.
So more and better unions would almost certainly translate directly into higher pay and better benefits for everyone, including people not in unions.
However, the effects of unions in building a middle class go far beyond that, in a myriad of ways.
For instance, the degree to which a country has created high-quality, universal health care is generally correlated with the strength of organized labor in that country. Canada’s single payer system was born in one province, Saskatchewan, and survived to spread to the rest of the countrythanks to Saskatchewan’s unions. Now Canadians live longer than Americans even as their health care system is far cheaper than ours.
U.S. unions were also key allies for other social movements, such as . . .