“Without unions, there will be no institution in American politics advocating for policies that benefit the vast majority of Americans who do not own capital.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders released a new plan on Wednesday that would overhaul U.S. labor laws and seek to double labor union membership by the end of his first term in office if elected president.
“For 45 years there has been a war in this country waged by the corporate elite against the working class of America,” said Sanders. “And the truth of the matter — not talked about in Congress, not talked about in the media — is that as a result of that war against the working class by the corporate elite, what we have seen is the decimation of working families all across this country, while the wealthiest people and largest corporations have done phenomenally well.”
The labor movement has a long history in the United States, but the dominant supply-side, or “trickle-down,” economic ethos of the last four decades has contributed to its erosion in contemporary American politics. In the 1940 and 50s close to 30% of American workers were in unions, while in 2018 the rate was 10.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There is no doubt that union membership is good for workers: union workers earn 22 percent more, on average, than non-union workers,” reads Sanders’ proposal. “In America today, 72 percent of union workers have a defined benefit pension plan that guarantees an income in retirement compared to just 14 percent of non-union workers. Union workers are also half as likely to be victims of health and safety violations or of wage theft and 18 percent more likely to have health coverage.”
Right-to-Work Laws Suffocate Labor Unions
A major way unions are stifled is through “right-to-work” laws. In many states, people who work for a unionized employer have to pay union dues. Right-to-work laws make it so employees don’t have to pay union dues even if they work for a unionized employer. While supporters of right-to-work laws argue they create more jobs and give employees more freedom, critics say they drive down wages and kill labor’s power to negotiate.
Gordon Lafer, author of The One Percent Solution, argues that right-to-work laws “put unions in the unique position of being required by federal law to provide all their benefits and services for free, without being able to charge for those services. Their most direct impact is to erode unions’ budgets and, ultimately, to make them financial unviable.”
Sanders’ plan lists the other strategies business owners use to impede unionization:
“When workers become interested in forming unions, 75 percent of private-sector employers hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns, 63 percent force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; and 54 percent of employers threaten workers in such meetings.”
The proposal would require merging companies to respect existing union contracts, protect pensions from being unfairly cut, give federal workers the right to strike, and bar employers from forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings, among other measures. Sanders argues that his plan would bolster the middle class by increasing the share of national income that goes to wages and benefits:
“Today, corporate profits are at an all-time high, while wages as a percentage of the economy are near an all-time low,” Sanders’ plan states, arguing that the breakdown in collective bargaining power is one of the greatest factors generating extreme inequality.
The Decline Of America’s Middle Class
Evonomics’ Nick Hanauer and David Rolf contend that the middle class is the true source of growth and innovation in a modern technological economy, because economic inclusion and security fuel consumer demand and certainty about the future:
“Innovation is how we solve problems and raise living standards, while consumer demand is how markets distribute and incentivize innovation. It is social, civic, and economic inclusion — the full, robust participation of as many people as possible — that drives both innovation and demand. And inclusion requires policies that secure a thriving middle class.”
Rolf and Hanauer explain how factors like globalized competition, corporate consolidation, and de-unionization weakened the post-WWII economic model of employer-based benefits, as employers have grown increasingly reliant on contractors and part-time workers that don’t require retirement or healthcare benefits. “The changing nature of employment is stripping away the labor standards and benefits that are prerequisites for sustaining an economically secure middle class,” wrote the authors.
The Center for American Progress used Census Bureau data last year to show that the share of income earned by the middle 60 percent of households dropped from 53.2 percent of national income in 1968 to 45.5 percent in 2017, a near-record low share. Over the same period, union membership declined from 28.2 percent of workers to less than 11 percent of workers.
The Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute argue that the decline in unions over the past 50 years is directly linked to the decline in the share of national income that has gone to the middle class, fueling extreme inequality. Last year, Princeton economists found that unions play a historical role in building the middle class and addressing income inequality.
Unions And Civic Participation
Studies have also shown that union membership significantly boosts civic participation and voter turnout. Aware of this fact, Koch brothers-backed organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have targeted state legislatures in recent years to pass right-to-work laws and other measures that restrict unionization.
“Without unions, there will be no institution in American politics advocating for policies that benefit the vast majority of Americans who do not own capital,” wrote The Nation’s Sean McElwee. “The worst-case scenario for America is that the vast swaths of the working class will move away from social democracy and toward xenophobia, populism, and authoritarianism.”
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