To achieve economic equality, American workers need unions
March 6, 2007
In January, President Bush finally acknowledged a problem that many people have long recognized: Economic inequality has been rising for more than a quarter century, and the average American worker is not sharing in the nation's economic gains.
If Bush took his new awakening seriously, he would immediately promise to sign legislation that the House of Representatives recently approved, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form a union. But Bush has promised to veto the bill.
Unions make society more equal by giving workers leverage to counterbalance the power of employers.
After workers won legal rights and started a wave of organizing in the 1930s, the distribution of incomes in America grew more equal for nearly four decades.
But since the union share of the workforce began a serious dive in the 1970s, the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown steadily. The decline of unions has particularly hurt the less educated, accounting for more than half the drop in the average real wage paid to workers with a high school education or less, according to Princeton University Professor Henry Farber.
When unionized workers bargain with employers, they typically get higher wages and better health insurance and pensions than non-union workers. But strong unions also boost the incomes of even non-union workers, whose employers raise wages to compete for good workers or to avoid unionization.
Unions make the country more equal through political action, as well, supporting policies such as a minimum wage, Medicare and Social Security, better public education, job retraining, anti-poverty programs and progressive taxation.
But as unions have shrunk, their political clout has also declined. And over recent decades, the government -- even with Democrats in power -- has done little to make incomes both more secure and equal.
Other forces, such as globalization, have contributed to the growing economic gap. But globalization posed similar challenges to the industrial countries of Western Europe, yet unions are stronger there, and European incomes have continued to be more equal than in the United States. Unions help make sure that nations adapt to globalization in ways that protect their workers' livelihoods.
Polls show a steady increase in worker support for unions, partly because of growing inequality and job insecurity. In 2005, 53 percent of non-union workers said they would like to join a union, according to a poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, even though now only 12 percent of American workers have a union.
Employers frustrate workers' desire to form unions through relentless, often illegal, opposition. Over time, the number of workers who are illegally fired or disciplined for supporting a union has grown. Employers now fire one out of every five union activists in workplace representation elections, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
The Employee Free Choice Act would require employers to recognize a union when a certified majority of workers sign representation cards. This has always been an option and once was extremely common, but now employers typically insist on holding an election, which gives them time to conduct intimidating anti-union campaigns.
The bill would also stiffen penalties for illegal actions, like firing union supporters, and provide mediation and arbitration if there's a problem reaching a first contract.
Making it easier for workers to form a union is an essential step toward restoring greater fairness and equality in America.
David Moberg is a senior editor at the Chicago-based In These Times magazine and writes widely on workplace issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.