What ever happened to the glory days of organized labor?
A new study by sociology professors at Harvard and the University of Washington has recently been published, detailing the correlation between the decline of union power/union membership and the rise in income inequality. The study finds that "between 1973 and 2007, when inequality in hourly wages spiked by 40%... union membership for private-sector male workers fell from 34% to 8%."
Wow. I always thought that inequality and related problems in the education system were the main reasons for income inequality. But this study says that the decline of unions is responsible for about one third of the growth in income inequality.
So then I got to wondering. What happened between 1973 and now? Why were unions so powerful back then? And why aren't they now? What needs to happen to get union membership back to where it was?
A few months ago, Mother Jones published an article called "Plutocracy Now" by Kevin Drum that gives a concise summary of the rise and fall of organized labor. Basically, after World War II, unions were going strong. And a huge reason for the prominence and strength of unions at that time was the fact that the Democratic Party relied on organized labor for money and for muscle. The Democratic Party and organized labor had a mutually beneficial relationship. Unions provided finances and manpower to campaigns and elections, and legislators supported pro-labor laws.
And get this; the pro-labor legislation that was passed by union-backed Democrats didn't just benefit union members. It benefitted all working class Americans. When minimum wage bills and other pro-labor bills were passed into law, all employers had to comply, not just unionized employers. The Democrats were looking out for all middle class people.
Plus, in the post-war period when more and more workers were unionizing, non-unionized employers had to compete with the unions. So they raised their wages. Another example of union power benefitting everyone, union members and non-union members alike.
According to Kevin Drum, the decline of unions started in the late '60s when the face of the Democratic Party started to change. Young hippies and counterculturists became a large part of the Democratic Party, and the issues that they identified with were mostly related to feminism, anti-war, and the sexual revolution. And most of these hippies had grown up in a pretty comfortable lifestyle. They tended to view labor activists as old white men who didn't understand them. And the labor activists were a little weirded out by them, too.
Thus began the breakup of organized labor and the Democratic Party. Around the same time, big businesses began to organize, forming groups such as the Business Roundtable. And unions couldn't compete. With unions becoming weaker, the Democrats were becoming weaker as well. Eventually the party realized it couldn't rely on the support and money from the unions any more, so they caved and became more friendly to the new business advocacy groups.
So that pretty much brings us to where we are now. Unions keep spiraling downward in terms of political influence and membership. Studies show that Democrats care less and less about the concerns and interests of the middle and working classes. Nowadays both major political parties in the U.S. are mostly concerned with the interests of the wealthy. No one's really looking out for our working class heroes. That's why more policies are being made to benefit the rich and make them more rich. And that's why we have this growing income gap.
So what's the solution you ask? If we want to reinstate unions back into the position of political power they enjoyed in the post-war period, we need to focus on electing a new breed of politicians, politicians who can identify with working class life, politicians who won't be swayed by the monetary bribes of big business and rich donors. We need politicians who care about economic equality. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?? Progressives!!
It's time to find a new breed of politicians who will fight for and work with organized labor like the Democrats did in the '50s and '60s. Progressives are the people for the job. Can you imagine how different things would be if there were more union leaders or unions workers in public offices? That's the goal we need to work toward.