Opinion | Unions are the solution to the plight of the working class

By Ethan Tessler, Staff Columnist

Now and then, I enjoy flipping through television channels to watch older shows like “Everybody Hates Chris,” “Married … With Children” and old episodes of “The Simpsons.” I’ve noticed a few things from watching these shows. Mainly, they all seem to revolve around lower-middle-class families that seem to get by just fine — even if they face financial issues now and then. All of these shows star a high school-educated father who can pay the bills with just his single stream of income.

In “Married… With Children,” family patriarch Al Bundy supports his family of four on the salary of a women’s shoe salesman — a job he’s had since high school. In “The Simpsons,” Homer Simpson maintains a low-level union job at the local nuclear power plant. Perhaps the family in “Everybody Hates Chris” is in the worst economic standing out of the three families, as father Julius Rock works two jobs to make ends meet.

I find it strange and unnerving that these shows were considered relatable — perhaps even portraits of working-class families — back in the 1980s, but are completely foreign in today’s world. It seems crazy to me that just 40 years ago, a single parent could support a family of four or five on jobs obtained by just a high school education. No matter what your occupation or level of education was, you could support a family and live a happy life. This was the American Dream. Now, it is the American Fantasy. Today, high school-educated parents are struggling to emulate the lives of these TV families — even when both parents work. Social mobility just isn’t as feasible today as it was in year’s past.

While some of the corporate media outlets are acknowledging this lack in upward mobility, I haven’t seen too many articles acknowledging why this is. The culprit lies in union membership. Actually, it’s the steep decline of union membership that has stunted upward social mobility while simultaneously fueling income inequality. Through their bargaining power, strong unions create opportunities for all and seem to be the cure for the plight of the working-class.

From the 1940s to the late 1970s — when unions were much stronger — worker productivity grew at a rate that was very similar to worker compensation. Starting in about 1979, there was a shift in this dynamic — due to new tax laws and worker policies set forth in the 1980s. Since then, worker productivity has increased at six times the rate of worker compensation. In other words, workers are more productive than they have ever been despite not reaping the fruits of their labor. So where did the money go? Like oil in water, it went straight to the top.

The nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute has shown through copious amounts of research that the top 1% of earners in America saw their wages skyrocket since 1979 — cumulatively — by 157.8%. In comparison, the bottom 90% of earners saw their wages increase by only 23.9% since 1979.

In another study, EPI found that the number of workers covered by collective bargaining has dropped from 27% to 11.6% since 1979. It went on to find that de-unionization accounts for 13-20% of income inequality growth for women and 33-37% for men. In total, working class people are losing more than $200 billion per year due to union erosion. And of course, the money working people lose every year is transferred to the wealthiest earners.

Unions have been under attack in America for their entire existence. In general, upper management and company executives are vehemently against unions. They often engage in aggressive anti-union campaigns so their employees don’t band together, sometimes even spending hundreds of millions of dollars on such efforts. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed to restrict the powers and activities of unions. Specifically, various measures of employee strikes were prohibited, in addition to the ban of monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns. In 1962, President John Kennedy made it so federal employees could bargain collectively, except they couldn’t strike — a strong negotiation tactic used by unions in the private sector. In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers because they went on strike.

If all of those actions weren’t enough to derail unions, the slew of free trade agreements were the proverbial nail in the coffin for American unions. To summarize these deals, they encourage mass imports and outsourcing, which means less jobs for American workers. All presidents from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump have signed new trade deals or expanded old ones, all of which exacerbate the current problem of shipping jobs overseas.

The relationship between the decline of labor unions and this upward transfer of wealth can be a difficult concept for people to understand. If only about a quarter of workers were in unions, why did the dip in unionization cause such massive losses in worker earnings? Well, if you have only one worker demanding higher compensation, their boss laughs at them and tells them to be happy with what they’ve got or else they’re fired. But if you have a large group of workers demanding higher compensation and more benefits, the company executives begin to sweat. Do they really want to fire the vast majority of their workforce? That would mean they’d have to hire a new workforce and retrain them. If a group of workers maintain a united front, they have the power to demand better compensation and employee benefits such as better health care, paid sick leave, paid family leave and much more.

This is known as collective bargaining. Once a boss begins to pay union members certain wages and benefits, non-union members also receive those wages and benefits. A boss can pay the non-union members less, but then what’s stopping those workers from unionizing themselves or working union jobs for more benefits?

Many European countries have industry-wide collective bargaining agreements. This is known as sectoral bargaining, and it creates a much better work-life balance for all workers by providing compensation and benefit floors for workers in each industry, occupation and/or region. This is evidenced by the fact that countries with forms of sectoral bargaining boast some of the best work-life balance in the world.

In countries like Sweden and Denmark, unions are plentiful and have the strength to provide wide coverage of collective agreements so practically all employees are covered. In countries with less union density but high sectoral bargaining, there are legal frameworks in place that ensure collective agreements have wide coverage. Austria doesn’t even have a minimum wage because collective agreements set forth by unions aim to keep worker wages in line with economic growth. If the United States were like Austria in that regard, the minimum wage would be about $24 per hour, because that’s how much productivity has risen.

I believe that the first step in bringing about laws that ensure wide coverage of collective agreements in the United States is for all workers to organize and recognize that their bosses are their enemies. Bosses don’t want employees to be unionized. In fact, they don’t even want employees or independent contractors — they want gig workers. California voters passed Proposition 22, which labeled ride-share and food delivery drivers as neither full-time employees nor independent contractors. This has had catastrophic effects on the labor force.

According to the American Prospect, these gig workers will have “no eligibility for state unemployment insurance, no guaranteed state minimum wage, stripped-down worker protections, no overtime pay, no sick leave, no workplace discrimination protection and no right to collectively bargain.” Furthermore, they reported that since Proposition 22 was passed, “grocery giants Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons announced that they’d be firing their full-time, benefits-receiving delivery staff, venerated just months ago as ‘essential workers,’ and replacing them with subcontractors from DoorDash.”

The people paying workers will try to undercut them at every turn. Once the workers realize that, they must join together to demand the wages and benefits that they deserve. American politicians must look to other countries’ labor practices and emulate them. These are the solutions to limiting income inequality, creating rising wages and implementing a better work-life balance.

Ethan Tessler is a senior and writes about issues that don’t seem to be at the forefront of media attention. If you enjoyed the column, hated it or have any other thoughts, write to him at [email protected].