February 15, 2015
Much has been made about the shrinking middle class in the United States where the wealthiest 160,000 families own as much as the poorest 145 million families. Income inequality is the gap in how much individuals earn from the work they do and the investments they make. Wealth inequality measures the difference in how much money and other assets individuals have accumulated. One of the contributing causes of wealth inequality is the labor movement’s diminished economic and political clout, as seen in the movement by states to enact right-to-work laws.
Thanks to collective bargaining, union members have higher wages and better benefits. In addition, union membership actually raises living and working standards for all working men and women, union and non-union. When union membership rates are high, so is the share of income that goes to the middle class. When those rates fall, income inequality grows and the middle class shrinks.
Corporations did not all of a sudden give workers two days off each week, which we now call weekends, or paid vacations and sick leave, or rights at the workplace, or pensions, or overtime pay. Virtually all the benefits we have at work, whether in the public or private sector, are because unions fought hard and long against big business who did everything they could to prevent giving us these rights.
Labor membership is shrinking. According to the Bureau of Labor Standards, in 2014 the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union was 11.1 percent, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. Consider that union membership peaked in 1954 at 28.3 percent.
And union popularity is down. Last year, a Gallup poll found only a small majority, 53 percent, approve of labor unions, down from 75 percent in the 1950s. Yet 71 percent of those polled support right-to-work laws.
Right-to-work, or as some have called such laws, a right to work for less laws, are being enacted by more and more states. The 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, permitted a state to pass laws that prohibit unions from requiring a worker to pay dues, even when the worker is covered by a union-negotiated collective bargaining agreement. Thus, workers in right-to-work states have less incentive to join and pay dues to a union. As a result, unions have less clout vis-à-vis corporations. Twenty-four states have right-to-work laws.
One study found “worker friendly [non-right-to-work] states are significantly healthier, are more productive, have less poverty, and with citizens who enjoy longer life spans. In four of the seven measures (GDP per capita, poverty, insurance and life expectancy rates) so-called ‘right-to-work’ states come out significantly (and statistically) worse.”
The study concludes saying “instead of pursuing laws that actually lower the standard of living in their states, policy makers should look for ways to elevate everyone’s standard of living. Enacting RTW laws is not only misguided, but in fact counterproductive to achieving such ends.”
Why do we need unions anyway? Because they are essential for America. Unions are the only large-scale movement left in America that serve as a countervailing balance against corporate power, acting in the economic interest of the middle class. But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition. You may take issue with a particular union’s position on an issue, but remember they are the only real organized check on the power of the business community in this country.
Right-to-work laws are anti-union and contribute to a shrinking middle class and wealth inequality.