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The inequality debate

2/26/2015
by Steve Grossman

Politicians from both sides of the aisle are now beginning to acknowledge the large and  growing gap between the most affluent Americans and the rest of us, and to recognize  the destructive nature of that inequity on our economy and society. A recent study shows that by the end of this year, the top 1% will hold 50% of the nation’s wealth.

Not surprisingly, however, our two main political parties have completely opposing visions of how to solve the problem. Obama and the Democrats push for government investment in infrastructure to rebuild America and to produce jobs,better access to higher education, universal preschool, and a shift in the tax burden towards the wealthiest of Americans and away from the middle class. Republicans on the other hand fall back on their usual playbook of tax cuts, deregulation, and repealing Obamacare.

Yet what seems to go completely unnoticed by most politicians – as well as by most of the public – is that the growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and the working class directly corresponds with a historic drop in union membership to the lowest rate in almost 100 years. In 2014 the percentage of workers belonging to a union dropped to 11.1% overall and 6.6% for private sector workers. In the 1970’s, when the gap was much smaller than it is today, almost one-third of workers were union members.

One factor leading to the most recent drop in union membership is the movement of our neighboring Great Lake states towards right-to-work and other anti-union legislation. Wisconsin alone lost 48,000 union workers last year while in Indiana union households have dropped from 11.3% to 9.1% just in the two years since it became a right-to-work
state. Now we have a governor in Illinois who shares the same anti-union values.

Union membership gives workers a voice in the workplace and a seat at the bargaining table. According to the Department of Labor, nonunion workers earn a median weekly income of $763, just 79% of the $970 per week earned by union workers. Without a union presence at the other side of contract negotiations corporate leaders are free to take a larger piece of the earnings pie for themselves and for the last 30 years they have been doing just that.

Giving more American workers a voice through union leadership will strengthen our middle class, just as it did in the post-WWII economic boom period that lasted from the late 1940’s through the 1970’s, when Americans across all socio-economic strata shared equally in our growing prosperity. Unfortunately we are faced with a current political climate in which one major party shows unbridled animosity toward unions while the other often tries to hide its association with us.

That means that for now it is up to us – all of us – who know first hand of the value of union membership to spread the word, speaking loud and proud to counter the attacks of those who seek to tear us down.
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