When workers have more leverage, income growth is more equal

From the Economic Policy Institute

The U.S. economy is more equitable when workers have the freedom to join together and bargain collectively through a union. The bottom line in the graph shows a sharp rise in union membership after enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935. (The NLRA itself was the outcome of an explosion of worker organizing around 1920). For decades the NLRA protected workers’ rights to negotiate with their employers—rights that workers used to secure a fairer share of overall income generated in the economy. This worker leverage led to decades of fast and equitable economic growth that persisted through the 1970s. The top line in the graph shows that the top 10 percent of Americans collected almost half of all income in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but only around a third by the 1950s, when union membership was at its peak and gains were spread more evenly to the bottom 90 percent.

In the 1970s fierce corporate opposition to unions, coupled with policymakers’ failure to protect private-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights, led to policies and practices that strangled union organizing in the private sector. The rapid de-unionization that ensued contributed to wage declines for all workers and reversed much of the economic progress that had been made by the broad American middle class in the decades following World War II. While the NLRA still protects workers’ rights to unionize, the law has not kept up with the onslaught of employer anti-union practices. The graph shows that as union membership declined, the top 10 percent’s share of all income rose, returning to Great Depression levels by the 2010s.

Janus v. AFSCME, a case that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2017, could accelerate growing inequality. A decision in favor of the plaintiff in Janus would outlaw mandatory fair share fees in the public sector—letting nonunion members in a school or fire department or other public workplace benefit from union representation but not pay for it. This opens the door for employers to use fear and intimidation to erode financial support for—and thus membership in—public-sector unions the same way that anti-union legislation (such as so-called “right-to-work” laws) has eroded union membership in the private sector.


Reposted from EPI

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