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union and income decline graph
(ThinkProgress—click for full-sized version)
The graph at right, from Think Progress, shows very clearly how union membership rates and the middle-class share of national income have declined together. As they say, though, correlation is not causation. We can know that these two things happened in the same time period in a way that shows up as a startlingly similar line on a graph, but they might be entirely unrelated, or both attributable to some other unmapped cause.

In this case, though, a new study bolsters the strong implication of that graph: Declining union membership is actually responsible for a significant part of the growth in income inequality. The (paywalled) study, by sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Jake Rosenfeld of the University of Washington, uses some terrifically frightening statistics to make this case.

Western explains that:

"Most researchers studying wage inequality have focused on the effects of educational stratification—pay differences based on level of education—and have generally under-emphasized the impact of unions."

Some excerpts from the study, which is in the American Sociological Review 76(4), omitting all the stuff about decomposition and reweighting and so on:

  • We argue that unions helped institutionalize norms of equity, reducing the dispersion of nonunion wages in highly unionized regions and industries. Accounting for unions' effect on union and nonunion wages suggests that the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality—an effect comparable to the growing stratification of wages by education. (513)
  • [D]eunionization's effects on inequality are only half as large as education's effects for women, but union and education effects are equally large for men. (528)
  • [We argue] that unions not only equalize union members' wages, they also equalize the nonunion wage distribution by threatening union organization and buttressing norms for fair pay. We found strong evidence that unionization rates in detailed industries for geographic regions are positively associated with wage equality among nonunion workers. (532)
  • The decline of U.S. labor and the associated increase in wage inequality signaled the deterioration of the labor market as a political institution. Workers became less connected to each other in their organizational lives and less connected in their economic fortunes. (533)

In other words, when Republicans and their corporate masters go after unions, they're not just coming for non-union workers next, they're already doing it. And when they tell you that unions are just looking out for their own members at your expense, they're saying something that contradicts the facts.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 01:48 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Not that it makes any difference, (19+ / 0-)

    but I suppose in the interest of disclosure I should say that when I was in grad school, Bruce Western was a professor and Jake Rosenfeld a grad student in my department.

  •  Good post, Laura. (8+ / 0-)


    The American people must wise up and rise up!

    by TomP on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 01:53:35 PM PDT

  •  of course it does, enough already (6+ / 0-)

    The goal is not to bring your adversaries to their knees but to their senses. -- Mahatma Gandhi

    by Mindmover on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:06:17 PM PDT

  •  Not that it makes any difference, given that (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    real world facts and data, and real life developments, and the reality-based scientific tracking of data, mean absolutely nothing to financiers and corporatists committed to playing out a narrative dictated by a select and highly insulated few.

    That's one more thing to add to my long list of small problems. --my son, age 10

    by concernedamerican on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:32:17 PM PDT

  •  Of course. (5+ / 0-)

    That's the GOAL behind the attacks on unions and the resulting decline in membership.

    "I wish I could tell you, in the midst of all of this, that President Obama was waging the kind of fight against these draconian Republican proposals that the American people would like to see. He is not." -- Senator Bernie Sanders

    by Sagebrush Bob on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:33:37 PM PDT

    •  I would tend to think.... (0+ / 0-)

      ....that while unions unquestionably were responsible for the pay and benefits with which we find acceptable everywhere, whether union or not, I think the decline is due simply to the fact that companies don't want to pay everyone that. Thus unions and non-union workers making high wages have been equally attacked. If this weren't true, then wages would be going down more slowly than union membership.

      No one ever created a vibrant economy by building houses for each other. Houses are built because there is a vibrant economy.

      by Doug in SF on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 04:23:02 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  That was the plan. n/t (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Marjmar, Dirtandiron, AuroraDawn

    So I see only tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity - Annie Dillard -6.88, -5.33

    by illinifan17 on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:35:42 PM PDT

  •  Proud Union Member CWA Local 6086 (4+ / 0-)

    80 % of success is JUST SHOWING UP; & not playing 11 Dimensional Chess !

    by Churchill on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:37:01 PM PDT

  •  yup, the owners are winning the fight..........eom (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dirtandiron, cdreid
  •  I wish I was in IATSE Local 871 Los Angeles (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    80 % of success is JUST SHOWING UP; & not playing 11 Dimensional Chess !

    by Churchill on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:38:26 PM PDT

  •  You know what might be a good idea? (7+ / 0-)

    Passing a law that allowed workers to unionize on the basis of a majority of them signing a card.  We could call it card check.  And then we could make it part of a piece of legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act.

    Gotta work hard to elect Democrats in 2012, people!

    'Cause if they ever controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency they'd surely pass such a law as the first order of business!

    "[S]ince Obama keeps talking nonsense about economics, at what point do we stop giving him credit for actually knowing better? Maybe at some point we have to accept that he believes what he’s saying." --Paul Krugman

    by GreenSooner on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:38:51 PM PDT

  •  Wait, what? (4+ / 0-)

    I thought that our economy was going to collapse unless we had open borders and amnesty for low-skilled workers?

    How can this diary be correct?

  •  Graph is a little misleading (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Guglielmo, cdreid

    It's scaled to look like a precise correlation, but actually union membership over the course of the graph has declined by 60%, while the middle class income share has declined by 6%.

    Now this may or may not still be a problem, but I far prefer to use graphs that show realistic representations of the numbers.

    (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
    Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

    by Sparhawk on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:46:00 PM PDT

    •  It's not misleading (0+ / 0-)

      The correlation is precise, it's just that the relationship is not 1 to 1.  Given the difference in the range of the change for the two factors to put them on the same scale would not make any sense.

      Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

      by David Kaib on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 06:16:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It does make sense (0+ / 0-)

        Huge change in one factor, slight change in the other.

        (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
        Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

        by Sparhawk on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 07:25:39 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  If the two have vastly different (0+ / 0-)

          ranges, then one scale cannot convey both.  There is no way to convey that that cannot be misinterpreted by someone who doesn't read carefully.

          These two things move together. Whether a relationship is 1 to 10 or 1 to 1,000 doesn't change affect the central question - the strength of the relationship. That issue, and not whether its a one to one relationship, suggests something about causation.

          Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

          by David Kaib on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 07:38:16 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  No it doesn't (0+ / 0-)

            Internet porn has risen during that time, maybe it is responsible for the decline.

            All you can say is that the two effects occurred simultaneously. You can't even infer a relationship from this data.

            (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
            Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

            by Sparhawk on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 08:00:51 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  hmmm (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doug in SF

    graphs rise and fall
    it doesn't really matter at all
    unless we have to fart
    The only timeless thing we have is art

    Tap yer toes on a summer Friday

    The cants go marching one by one

  •  correlates with de-industrialization too (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    one should also examine how work changed during this period. traditional union strongholds like factory work and industrial production have declined in the US. Service sector employment did not unionize in the same manner as an industrial economy. How many IT workers unionized? It all works together, but as new fields grew they didnt re-unionize the workers in the new opportunities that were "supposed" to replace the declining industrial jobs. regardless, its all part of the same neo-liberalist philosophy that is ruining the US.

    I cant tell if its a West End musical or Marxism in action.

    by Evolution on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 02:56:45 PM PDT

    •  yes. I discussed this in a diary series (0+ / 0-)

      One argument that is often coupled with anti-immigration sentiments is that we need to “rebuild our high-wage manufacturing industries”, and reduce our dependence on low-paying service-sector jobs (the kind of jobs that are most often taken by immigrants). TV pundit Thom Hartmann says, “Since we moved from a manufacturing to a service economy under Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush we’ve seen manufacturing fall from about a quarter of our economy to only 11 percent of it.  That means we no longer make anything of value here.  Without making things, we don’t create true wealth—we just move money around.” The National Association of Manufacturers echoes, “A strong, efficient and innovative U.S. manufacturing base is essential to our country’s economic future in a competitive world environment. . . . America’s prosperity and strength are built on a foundation of manufacturing.” And the      AFL-CIO concludes, “Companies are sending well-paying manufacturing and service jobs to countries with few, if any, protections for workers and the environment. And these jobs are probably not coming back. . . . Manufacturing jobs traditionally have provided high wages and good benefits that allow workers to care for their families. But 2.5 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared since President Bush took office in early 2001. Multinational corporations are transferring jobs to countries where workers earn low wages and have few or no protections. . . . Manufacturing job loss starts the downward spiral. The loss of good manufacturing jobs has ripped apart communities and permanently lowered living standards for families throughout the United States.”

      Such arguments are in essence justifications for protectionist policies towards America’s declining heavy manufacturing, part of the alliance between declining industries and declining labor unions. They fail to acknowledge that the shrinking manufacturing sector is an inevitable fact of ordinary economic development, and it cannot be stopped or reversed.

      In early human history, most people were farmers, because farming was so inefficient that it took huge amounts of resources to produce enough food for everyone.  As machinery and chemical technology developed, however, farms became capable of producing more and more yield while utilizing fewer and fewer people. Today, therefore, farmers make up less than ten percent of our population, and because of technology and more efficient uses of labor, that ten percent produces more than enough to feed everybody.

      The same process is now happening with manufacturing. Manufacturing used to take up a majority of our population, because it was so inefficient that it required that many people to produce everything.  Now, however, that is no longer true. With technological progress and improved efficiency of labor, manufacturing, like farming, now requires only a tiny part of our population, which is able to produce several times as much output now as it did in the past with much larger workforces.

      As soon as manufacturing (just like farming) required only a small portion of our population, the majority of us became service-sector employees instead (just as in the past the large portion of the labor force that was pushed off the farms by machinery became part of the manufacturing sector instead, by taking factory jobs). And the very same thing is now already happening to the service sector—automation and technological advances mean that the same amount of work can be done by continually fewer and fewer people, and as the service sector becomes more efficient in its use of labor, the number of people employed in that sector continually goes down. Soon, the service sector, like manufacturing and farming, will also require only a small part of the population.

      Those who defend heavy industry as “providing good-paying jobs” are making a mistaken assumption. Manufacturing is, in reality, not inherently any more high-wage than any other industry—it is only high-wage in the US because in the past, when manufacturing was the largest part of the labor force, we had a strong union movement in that sector that made it high-wage, against the active opposition of the corporate bosses.  In areas today where there is no such strong union movement (such as China), manufacturing positions are still low-wage bad-working-condition dead-end jobs, just like service-sector fast food jobs are here.

      The low-wage service sector jobs here, of course, are not inherently low-wage either. They could be transformed into          high-wage good-working-condition jobs in the very same way that manufacturing jobs were in the past—with a strong union movement.

  •  Thanks. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I had a big blowout argument with a "frien-emy" about this very subject a few days ago.

    Just forwarded it to his smug suburban lair.

    Ideology is an excuse to ignore common sense.

    by Bush Bites on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 03:02:38 PM PDT

  •  I will never understand why more people don't (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    believe the saying......"United we stand, Divided we fall." Sometimes people can't see the path that would be in their benefit. Stiving for the lowest common denominator is not really very wise!

  •  The graphs are "startlingly similar" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    because the scales make them so.  That doesn't change the fact that as the rate of unionization fell, so did the share of income earned by the middle class.  Plotting unionization rates against the share of income earned by the middle class would make the point, but without the hint of deception.

    "A fundamentalist is someone who hates sin more than he loves virtue."--John Schaar

    by Guglielmo on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 03:09:26 PM PDT

  •  This trend will continue (0+ / 0-)

    With so many companies going to "temporary" workers and "contract" addition to the usual threats that if a union is organized the plant/company will close its doors....this trend will continue, me thinks.

    -- **Nothing sucks more than that moment during an argument when you realize you're wrong.**

    by r2did2 on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 03:14:09 PM PDT

    •  worse ----even the low-wage jobs will disappear (0+ / 0-)

      Manufacturing jobs are of course not any more inherently high-wage than service-sector jobs. Wages in manufacturing jobs here were high because they were unionized; service sector job wages are low because they're not unionized. And in places where manufacturing jobs are not unionized, like Thailand or Mexico, they are low-wage shit jobs.

      People used to say that people who formerly made good wages producing cars and steel will now make shit wages as cashiers at WalMart or McDonald's.

      Alas, that won't happen either.

      More and more, I am noticing service sector jobs, particlarly cashiers, being phased out in favor of automation. I fisrt saw it in my local library a few years ago, when a number of librarians disappeared, replaced by a "self-signout" kiosk where you could scan out your own library books.

      Not very long ago, I noticed that most of the checkout cashiers at the local Home Depot were gone, replaced by "self-checkout" machines that allowed you to scan out your own purchases and feed cash or a credit card into the machine to pay for it. And in Pennsylvania while on vacation I saw the same thing in several food supermarkets.

      Then I heard about a McDonald's in DC that has replaced most of its counter order-takers with self-ordering kiosks, where you enter your own order on a computer screen and pay right there. And the people working the drive-through were gone too---now when a customer pushes the button on the drive-through menu, it connects him to a service call center in Kentucky, where someone enters your order on a computer and sends it to the kitchen staff back in DC to be filled. And of course with current technology there is no reason for the call center to be in the US---it would work just as well in India or Mexico or Zambia.

      In a few years, the millions and millions of service-sector cashier and order-taker jobs won't merely be lower-wage---they'll be entirely gone.

      To be replaced by . . . . . . . . . ????????

  •  ... and this is EXACTLY what the neocons / neolibs (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    wanted to happen.

    The Plutocrats and Oligarchs have been hoarding as much currency as possible without re-injecting any into circulation, deliberately depressing our economy while simultaneously offshoring as may American jobs as possible.

    The virtual elimination of the middle class and its replacement with a permanent underclass comprised of indentured servants... mired in debt without a snowballs chance in hell of ever getting out of it.

    The greatest gap between rich and poor since the Gilded Age and the concerted efforts to bust as many unions (both public and private) as they can.

    Milton Freidmans wettest of dreams.

    They're almost there... but the momentum is now being stymied by their perennial Achilles Heel... overreaching and underestimating the breaking point of a populace that has little left to lose.

    History has never been subtle as to the results... as many heads-on-pikes could testify to if they still had tongues.

    "I'm a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy."

    by Sandy Berman on Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 03:44:41 PM PDT

  •  GOP aims to kill unions. Really? (0+ / 0-)

    Well, yes and to a degree because of what they do, which as this diary says is help to relieve income inequality, but more importantly income inequity.

    No one who's looked at what the GOP states have done in regard to unions can seriously argue the there is not a national GOP campaign to coordinate elimination of collective bargaining.

    Sen. Jim DeMint, aka DimWit, held up key appointments for Homeland Security and accused the officials there of paving the way for unionization and other distortions. DeMint is one of the hardest line anti-labor senators and has among other things introduced a National Right to Work Act. So far, such a bill is pointless.

    But their actions to deprive unions of members and dues limit there political power as well. and DeMint has also proposed legislation to prohibit lobbying that is in any way affiliated with unions. FAir, huh? The Southern Republicans promise a union free or at least right to work status for companies setting up there. It was clearly along with tax subsidies and other benefits funded in large part by union-tilted states. Now wonder he went ballistic when Boeing got caught trying to bust the Machinists by opening a union free shop in South Carolina.

    It's much deeper than that. They're just getting started and if they don't get it now, they plan to eventually. The right-wing of the right wing GOP has always had a long term plan to kill unions and other social legislation.

  •  duh. (0+ / 0-)

    Didn't need a study to tell me this.

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