Mighty, mighty unions?

My co-author, Ranjit Singh — who wrote Each One, Teach One with me—raised an interesting analogy on Twitter recently, pointing out that many on the left believe that raising the prices on sugary sodas and tobacco will reduce usage, while increasing the minimum wage won’t make people lose jobs. I’ll challenge the analogy a little, since I don’t want to see human beings treated like consumer goods, but not too much. As I say, it’s an interesting thought, one worth examination.

Singh and I are in agreement on the subject of gun rights, but on many other political subjects, we operate under a different set of philosophies, but in an increasingly rare example of civility, we’ve proved able to keep the disagreement reasonable and to learn from each other.

I point this out because as a progressive, I support the idea of the working class being much better off, and a person who works forty hours a week, every week in the year, will earn $15,080 over that period, minus payroll taxes. This is not a living wage, and I invite anyone who thinks that it is to try it.

The current politically approved definition of a living wage among many of my fellow leftists is $15 an hour. In the popular view, especially held by people on the right, is that minimum-wage jobs are for teenagers working after school or over the summer, but the majority of people doing such work are older than twenty-four. And a lot of other workers are making not much more.

And things have been getting worse over time. We’ve seen steady improvements in productivity over the decades since World War II, but starting in the early 70s, the rise in hourly wages flattened out.

There are predictably several reasons for this. We’ve created machines that can do a lot of the work that human beings once had to do, and through technology, we’ve increased what a human worker can do exponentially. We have also seen the destruction of workers to engage in collective bargaining — the demise of unions.

Over the same period that wages failed to keep up with productivity, union participation rates fell. Now correlation doesn’t prove causation, and as I said, there are many factors involved, but the reality that the vast majority of workers in most states have to face their employers on their own does strike me as a drag on the potential of those workers to get raises.

This is so much more the case in times of economic downturn — which is of course the period when workers are the most in need of earning more money. But the more you need a job, the less motivated an employer is to offer higher wages and benefits. And in minimum-wage jobs, workers are effectively commodities — easily replaced by many other people who come with the same set of basic skills.

This is not to say that unions are perfect. Yes, the potential exists for bad workers to be protected and for silly rules that gum up the working to be written into contracts by unions — though let’s remember that many of those rules exist for the safety and health of the workers who have all too often been treated as expendable by their employers. But even with the above concerns in mind, I can’t forget that things are tilted far more in the advantage of those who are doing the hiring and against those who are seeking to be hired or to remain in the jobs.

I appreciate the call for $15 an hour as the minimum wage, but I think that we could improve the situation for many workers by enabling them to join together to bargain for better wages. That power would bring up not only the amount that they earn, but would also benefit all workers.

This kind of solution gets called communism or socialism or whatever the current insult is the favorite of the right wing, and as best as I can gather, what is meant is that the proposal would shift power from those with extraordinary wealth to ordinary people. Call that what you will; I have no problem with it. As a progressive and liberal, I’m entirely on the side of whatever makes life better for ordinary people, and if the people with an abundance of wealth and power — though I repeat myself — have to share a bit to accomplish this, so be it.

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