Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 12, 13 or 14
Rauner is touting “Right To Work zones,” where local governments could prohibit contracts signed by employers and unions from requiring employees benefiting from pay, hours and conditions achieved by the union a majority votes to negotiate for them from sharing in the non-political costs of settling and enforcing contracts.
But the union weakness that could result from convincing some people that they need not pay for what others gain for them would have an unintended consequences, according to EPI, which documents a clear correlation between the rise and fall of union influence and the distribution of wealth in the country, from a sharing of profits derived from worker productivity to a disconnect resulting in stark income inequality.
“The right to collective bargaining is a building block to good economics, shared prosperity, a strong middle class, and a country that believes in balanced democracy,” said United Autoworkers’ president Dennis Williams, who’s preparing to negotiate with the Big Three automakers. In bargaining the current contract in 2011, the UAW gave up the right to strike at Chrysler and GM to help the corporations recover from bankruptcy. But that pact expires Sept. 15; the work-stoppage option will be back.
Meanwhile, several causes are behind the falling number of union-represented workers and income inequality, but EPI shows that as membership declines, wages suffer – across the board, not just with unionized workers – and the wealthy benefit.
The EPI research outlines that the percent of public- and private-sector workers in unions has fallen to 11.1 percent, its lowest since the 1930s, and that the share of income going to the most prosperous Americans (the top 10 percent) reached an all-time high of 47.8 percent in the last couple of years.
Unions still immensely improve wages and working conditions, economic analyst and business journalist Doug Henwood recently reported, and U.S. workers – unionized and not – are starting to notice.
The labor movement is stirring, from west coast ports to Midwest oil refineries, seeking a restored balance from past sacrifices workers made to help employers and the U.S. economy. Also, union leaders may take advantage of a tightening labor market and an improving political climate, shown in Wal-Mart agreeing to raise wages for its work force and the subject of income inequality being addressed by the Federal Reserve and prominent Republicans as well as Democrats and progressive advocates.
Just since 2009, U.S. management compensation has gone up about 50 percent faster than union workers’ income. By comparison, real wages in the auto industry have fallen 24 percent since 2003, according to the Center for Automotive Research.
It’s beyond “enough is enough.” It’s become “too much is more than plenty,” and unions are starting to reaffirm their place in labor relations, and in the nation.
“Employers seem to think that they can push unions, the roots of the American working class, off a cliff,” said Dave Campbell, whose union local represents oil-terminal workers at the Port of Long Beach. “Well, these corporations have made a significant miscalculation in our ability to fight back.”
A challenge for labor leaders had been to fight the misconception that unionized workers are overpaid and protected despite performing badly. Income inequality shows common ground where all workers struggle, and a common foe: the greed of the richest of the rich. For the first time in decades, the interests of organized labor dovetail with the economic health of most Americans, even those not yet unionized. Most feel excluded.
“This is a political opportunity for organized labor,” said author and Harvard professor Bruce Western, also speaking to Bloomberg.
[PICTURED: Matt Damon poster from Unions 4 Workers; small sign from Union Proud/IBEW.]