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If you need to work to live in America, you're pretty much screwed—middle class, working class, poor. Productivity is rising dramatically, while pay isn't:

Graph showing hourly productivity rising by 80.4% between 1973 and 2009 while median compensation increases just 10.7%
In fact, median family income has been stagnant for a decade:
Real Median Income
Income inequality has risen to ridiculous levels:
Income inequality is at an 80 year high.
Measure after measure after measure shows us how bad it is. The old saying is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, but you don't have to be poor to feel the squeeze any more. It's hitting the vast majority of Americans. So what does all this have to do with Labor Day? With unions? Well:
Graph showing the union membership rate and middle class share of the national income declining together.
The way union membership rates and the share of income that goes to the middle class have declined together isn't a coincidence. According to one study, "the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality," affecting not just union members or people who've lost union jobs, but all workers. And that's not all, as you can see below the fold.

Unions don't just raise wages and help control inequality between those at the top and everyone else, they help reduce racial and gender inequality:

Bar graph showing the median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers, comparing union and non-union workers. Across demographic groups, union workers earn more.
For instance, in 2010, non-union women working full-time made a median weekly income of 78 percent of white men, while among union members, women made nearly 87 percent of what men did.

As the study showing that declining union membership is significantly responsible for growing inequality put it, "Workers became less connected to each other in their organizational lives and less connected in their economic fortunes." And, disconnected, working Americans have grown weaker, have lost out on what should have been their share of the nation's prosperity. So, yes, unions matter.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 01:25 PM PDT.

Also republished by Income Inequality Kos, In Support of Labor and Unions, and Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  As Productivity goes up (8+ / 0-)

    compensation of the skilled worker on the factory floor goes down. Jesuits know this.

  •  Without labor unions, the middle class shrinks... (18+ / 0-)

    The study which Laura links to is paywalled, but a shorter version of the same study is summarized by its authors, Jake Rosenfeld and Bruce Western, along with a bunch of research  here on the future of labor at the Scholars Strategy Network.

    •  We need to redefine the "middle class" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      because most people who think they are in it are not.

      I think middle class is when you earn more money than your parent(s) earned, adjusted for inflation.

      I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business.

      by CFAmick on Mon Sep 02, 2013 at 09:53:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  if only we could convince (14+ / 0-)

    our fellow Americans in the "red states" and the folks more than 5 miles outside Madison

    when I see a republican on tv, I always think of Monty Python: "Shut your festering gob you tit! Your type makes me puke!"

    by bunsk on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 01:49:28 PM PDT

    •  They need a reminder that unions (19+ / 0-)

      were always the driving force in areas that affected their lives:  paid vacations, paid holidays, increases in the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, paid benefits, Medicare, and other areas.  When there are unions, wages go up for EVERYONE because other employers need to compete for good employees and they're competing with union wages for those employees.

      Everyone is positively impacted by labor unions whether they are members and pay dues or not.  Much of the current economic woes of America track right along the demise of unions because it's all connected.  You get it through their Limbaugh addled brains by reminding them what unions have done for them.

      There already is class warfare in America. Unfortunately, the rich are winning.

      by Puddytat on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:14:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yep. unions were an important part (13+ / 0-)

        of shifting income from capital to labor during the New Deal period. The post 1980 decline of unions contributed to shifting income back to capital. We need policies that shift it back to labor once again...strengthening unions is one part of that.

        Other parts would include:

        (1)  A substantial increase in the minimum wage - I stand with the fast food workers seeking an increase to $15.
        (2)  Reduction in the work week from 40 to 32 hours without any pay loss, to push back against productivity growth result in fewer workers.
        (3) Medicare For All
        (4) Unemployment insurance reform that would include temp workers, even others to broaden the safety net.
        (5) Corporate tax reform that would tax U.S. corporations on value added per U.S. employee, not income thus penalizing a company with low wages/poor health benefits. Ralph Gomery came up with that idea.

        •  May I add to your fine list (10+ / 0-)

          Under #4, Unemployment Insurance - needs to not be limited in terms of time and/or benefits.  Reagan limited the benefits and made them taxable.  That needs to end.  Forcing people to take minimum wage jobs just to get them off UC isn't a solution - it makes the problem worse.

          I'd also add strengthening Social Security.  Make more than just "earned income" subject to SS and Medicare tax.  Wall Streeters who make their money not by earning it, but investing it pay NO SS or Medicare tax.  That exemption must be ended.  On top of that, bonuses should also be subjected to SS and Medicare tax above, say $5000.  Also, the cap must be removed from contributions to SS and Medicare.  Everyone outside of retirees should be paying in on every dollar they make.

          If this was done, benefits could be raised and the retirement age could be LOWERED, making more jobs available to people entering the work force.  As it is now, people are working longer making fewer jobs available.

          The other thing that would help would be to end those bad trade deals that siphoned off American jobs.  Bring back tariffs to make manufacturing here not only better, but cheaper.

          There already is class warfare in America. Unfortunately, the rich are winning.

          by Puddytat on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:36:52 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Smoot Hawley worked so well (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Tariffs do not generate jobs.  Tariffs generate higher prices for consumers and tariffs generate NFL luxury box tickets for congressmen who campaign contributors now have monopolies.

            "states like VT and ID are not 'real america'" -icemilkcoffee

            by Utahrd on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 04:27:38 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  We're gerrymandered and disenfranchised (6+ / 0-)

      A Dem gets 3/5th of a vote in NC.

      Republicans cheat.

      look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

      by FishOutofWater on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:33:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I hear a lot from peers (I'm in my 20s) (16+ / 0-)

    say that unions did great things in the past, but now they're obsolete. Kind of mission accomplished, now they're no longer needed. Now we have strong laws and regulations protecting workers, labor and employment lawyers who we can employ to protect our rights.
    After what Republicans have done in Wisconsin and Michigan and elsewhere I don't see how anyone can continue to believe this. If Republicans could do what they wanted we'd have the labor protections of the 1870s.

    ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

    by James Allen on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 01:52:26 PM PDT

    •  That's because your peers were (16+ / 0-)

      likely not taught any (or very little) about labor history in the US, and/or they are not union members.  Workers starved, fought, and died to establish these rights.  Of course, it might not occur to your peers how those regulations came to be in the first place.  Please tell me they don't think that the coporatists suddenly developed a heart and decided to just grant these things to 'the little people?'

      Much like the women's liberation movement, 20-somethings today think that all those hard-fought gains are here to stay, but they are not.  The sad fact is we are re-fighting those same battles every day, every year, just to try to hold onto those gains, not to mention attempts to move forward are continuously stymied by the Right.

      One person can make a difference--and everyone should try. --John F. Kennedy

      by GypsyT on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:05:38 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  You need to remember (or get educated) (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JeffW, James Allen, 1Nic Ven

      that those "strong laws" and "rights" need to be protected.  As unions have declined, we've borne witness to the huge failure to enforce worker health and safety laws (Deepwater Horizon and our plethora of mining disasters come immediately to mind) and also seen labor laws skirted or ignored because strong labor supporters aren't appointed to the labor board or OSHA.

      That said, I and others have been pushing for a couple of decades to get unions off their asses which got far too lazy with the smugness that comes from success.  We now live with the results - members don't feel connected to their unions and unions don't work hard enough for their members.  Today, I see the kind of active labor movement due to better leadership that we've needed for a long time, but that has come because unions are now under attack and it's a fight for the life of unions themselves.  I wish they had gotten active earlier so all this could have been prevented.

      I feel certain that if it's not too late due to the devastation wrought by the RW, the trend will be reversed and unions will once again have a prominent voice in the direction of this country.

      There already is class warfare in America. Unfortunately, the rich are winning.

      by Puddytat on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:22:33 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm getting educated (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Puddytat, GypsyT

        I'm in law school and I'm just starting to take employment law, will take labor law next year, and I've got union members on all sides of  my family going back generations, so I don't agree with those peers.

        ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

        by James Allen on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 06:50:20 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  be careful about your accusations (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        1Nic Ven, GypsyT, Dirtandiron, policymaven

        The media have painted union members (including leaders) as "lazy" and "thugs" and many other things for decades now. After the huge successes of the post-WWII era, the corporate bosses got scared and subsidized an unending campaign to undermine union membership in the US.
        By projecting negative stereotypes portrayed in movies and tv, and by targeting some union leaders by "investigative journalists," and by funding anti-union laws, and by pressuring workers not to join unions, the owners have managed to push union membership down to incredibly low numbers in the private sector. As Ms. Clawson wrote, those low numbers are the reason for low wages and low levels of worker protection in the US.
        The attacks on unions in the public sector are the last battle in this war, and it has had huge impacts across the country. I have seen too many people on the pages of Daily Kos echo the right-wing attacks on "stupid teachers" and "lazy state employees" who are all "protected by their unions."
        Unions leaders can't do much when they represent such a small share of the working population. Cut their membership and you cut the funds that the leaders have to work with.
        There are other limitations as well. In many states, public sector unions are banned from striking. This leaves them very little leverage when the legislator (or insane governor) decides to cut their salaries/health care/pensions.

        I'm glad that you're noticing the activities of unions now. I think that their presence in the media has less to do with changes in leadership than it has to do with changes in our culture. When workers were feeling fat and happy in the 80s and early 90s they thought they didn't need unions, and the media didn't report on their activities. Today unions are recognized (by some) as the last bastion in the US against creeping feudalism, and suddenly they are in the headlines again.

        •  You know so very little of me (0+ / 0-)

          You might start with my profile.  Then, perhaps you should spend some time reading a few of my diaries back when we were protesting in Madison in February and March 2011.

          I'm strongly pro-union, a union activist and organizer, and liberal activist.  Feel free to check me out with fellow Kossacks.  You might want to look at those who follow my work.

          That said, I've been battling against the lethargy of unions in the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond when the leadership was resting on the laurels of their past accomplishment as the seeds of their destruction were being put in place by the monied interests.

          I'm glad that you're noticing the activities of unions now
          Noticed?  Ha!  I've participated in those activities since the mid 70s.  I still do as an active union retiree.  Our current battles wouldn't be necessary if union leadership would have been more engaged in the past few decades.

          Perhaps it's you who should be careful in your accusations.

          There already is class warfare in America. Unfortunately, the rich are winning.

          by Puddytat on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 11:19:21 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  And who's going to protect (7+ / 0-)

      the laws that protect the workers? The entire political dimension of unionism is often missed. Unions used to be the support of the Democratic party in the north - now rich "donors" are. We are seeing the difference.

      "It is, it seems, politically impossible to organize expenditure on the scale necessary to prove my case -- except in war conditions."--JM Keynes, 1940

      by randomfacts on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:51:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  exactly (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        once you get rid of the unions there little left to protect those laws from being undermined or repealed.

        ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

        by James Allen on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 06:51:15 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Inequality (0+ / 0-)

      You might want to point your friends to the following website, www.Heist-the, which is currently streaming free through Labor Day week. Having produced the film, I can certainly tell you that it tells the story of our economy from the point of view of working people, not the 1%.

      Here is the link to the reviews of the film.

  •  I always noticed how from the get-go unions (6+ / 0-)

    brought together white and black, women and men, young and old. They were and are no cure for racism and sexism, but they're certainly an entity that enhances solidarity of people of color with whites and enhances solidarity of the sexes.

    In L.A. for example, I always like watching every possible group of humanity demonstrating for greater justice. Especially white and Latino.

    They're a "we're all in the same boat" movement as distinct from the more libertarian strains in our society.  

    "They come, they come To build a wall between us We know they won't win."--Crowded House, "Don't Dream It's Over."

    by Wildthumb on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:13:19 PM PDT

  •  too many of the 99% (7+ / 0-)

    let their hate and bigotry outweigh their common sense and self interests when voting in elections, the economic conditions in america verify this.

  •  Thank you for keeping this front and center. (5+ / 0-)

    "Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops." General Buck Turgidson

    by muledriver on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:23:49 PM PDT

  •  30 hour work week (5+ / 0-)

    This is what we should be lookiing for.  Increased wages of 50-100%.  It happened over time a hundred years ago.  This is how we will recapture efficiency in our pay, and reduce the unemployment to historical low levels.  Right now they have risen a couple percent over the past generation.  And hopefully we can make it so that certain races are not at high employment just because the look different.

  •  power (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    on the cusp, ManhattanMan

    Part of the problem is self inflicted.  Unions got lax during Reagan (PATCO) allowing union members to cross picket lines,  Reagan won, we lost.  Now unions (and dkos) ask us to sign petitions--as if the "man" is gonna care.  Unions need to strike--unions should have occupied Wall Street--unions need to get more politically active in voter registration.  Take the Philadelphia and Chicago school situation--teachers and parents should be picketing--closing down the school systems until decent education is guaranteed to all.  
    Is it too late?  We'll never know unless we try--but one thing I do know--petitions aren't worth the bandwith they're occupying.  No pain, no gain.

    Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite. John Kenneth Galbraith .

    by melvynny on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 02:57:55 PM PDT

  •  Deceptive graph (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The graph showing union membership and middle-class share of income is deceptive because it uses totally different vertical scales for the two quantities, adjusted in order to make the two graphs lie on top of each other. You could pull the same trick with any other two quantities that are steadily decreasing, no matter what the quantities and no matter what the rates of decrease. Here's a version that uses the same scale for both graphs.

    •  identical trend matches: union membership down.. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ManhattanMan, JeffW, Dirtandiron

      ..middle class share of income down.

      Point made, stack it any way you like. The fact remains

      Key fact:

      You could pull the same trick with any other two quantities that are steadily decreasing,
      aligned compact size of graphic or not. Both "steadily dereasing" - union membership decreases middle class workers take home a smaller percetage less of what they have produced

      Wage stagnation: CBPP's Jared Berstein @ NYT

      Conversely, to take aim at the primary distribution right now would start from the premise that left to its own devices, the market will most likely create jobs of quantity and quality inadequate to lift the living standards of many middle- and lower-income families. And I’m not just thinking of the unemployed and underemployed here.  A key factor behind the E.P.I. wage findings is the absence of full employment: the benefits of growth flow away from those with the least bargaining power.  Slack labor markets rob working families of a reliable source of more equitable distribution (this observation is particularly germane in our largely deunionized workplaces).
    •  Hardly a trick (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Both are declining, and there is no coincidence involved. Without the power of a collective voice, workers have no ability to get a fair wage for their work

  •  It's anti-capitalist, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    market-rigging, cost-shifting, upward redistributors what done this. And the union members who vote Republican aided and abetted them.

  •  Can part of the productivity gains (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Utahrd, JeffW

    be due to technology and other factors other than labor? If so, why should compensation track with productivity gains?

    Gondwana has always been at war with Laurasia.

    by AaronInSanDiego on Sun Sep 01, 2013 at 04:17:25 PM PDT

  •  Without unions (4+ / 0-)

    Before unions people were routinely made to work as much and as long as possible, for as little as employers could get away with. Unions gave working folks a lot of things everybody now takes for granted. Check on the working conditions and pay structure prior to unions and after, and you will see why a strong economy depends/needs strong unions.

  •  Bangladesh (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    We know what America was like before there were strong unions, and we see what happens in countries without unions today. In Bangladesh, organizers are tortured and murdered. Workers slave away for a dollar a day in sweatshops where many die in fires or building collapses. Retailers like Wal Mart make enormous profits from exploiting these foreign workers, as well as their American workers, who are fired when they try to organize. It is time for everyone who is progressive to support working people and their right to organize and collectively bargain. A suggestion: start by boycotting Wal Mart. And, if you see a picket line, respect it. Happy Labor Day!

  •  Finland (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It's hard to imagine more unionized countries than Finland or Sweden. Over 72% of the Finnish workforce is in unions and Finland is a very middle-class country, with a gini coefficient at or below .30 depending on who you talk to.  It has healthy children and high PISA scores, inexpensive university, and of course, universal health care. A salary of €40,000 a year translates to $105,000 in the US just because so many of American public goods or services (a) no longer exist, or (b) are externalized as in the case of a university education. Unions usually embrace automation and robots. It turns out that cyberification of everything makes new kinds of sometimes interesting jobs.

    Even so, some events like the collapse of the Bamboo Wall, have affected middle-class jobs just like in the US, especially in manufacturing. A good example is production of electronic-grade oxygen-free copper. Invented in the US in the 1950s, high-purity copper handling in a pure nitrogen atmosphere is so tricky than when it was introduced in China in the 1990s, the assumption was that the Chinese would not master the technique for decades, as was the case in the US, Finland and a few other places. In fact, it took just three years. China may have prison labor, but in some instances it sure acts like very motivated prison labor.


  •  Inspiring pro-union video (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    from Bold Progressives...

    And to add to the productivity issue.  I have one friend in client services management, another friend with a couple of sons in management level positions.  They are being worked like dogs...long hours...people are afraid to take vacations for fear of losing their jobs.  So it's not just jobs that people would traditionally think of as being union...everybody is having the life sucked out of them.


    •   Inspiring pro-union video (0+ / 0-)

      Though I appreciate all the discussion that has taken place on this Labor Day holiday, nobody is speaking directly to the problem which is global capitalism. It should be very clear to everyone that this system, if it ever did, does not work for not only the 99% of human beings, but it certainly does not work for planet Earth and all the other beings on it. I commend to all of you a book by Jerry Mander entitled, "The Capitalism Papers." In the 1970s, he wrote a very famous book entitled "4 Arguments for the Elimination of Television," which brilliantly exposed the role of marketing and advertising as the raison d'être for any television programming. Four decades later, we find ourselves in a cesspool of advertising no matter where we go. And the advertising is not just about products that you should consume endlessly, but it is also about political products, namely candidates and parties who will speak to you of hope and change, while plotting our demise. The globalization experiment that this country launched will ultimately destroy the planet, and conversations about workers pay and working conditions will pale in comparison.

      We can no longer continue this path of unsustainability or we shall all see our children and grandchildren suffer very grave consequences. Happy Labor Day!

  •  Republicans in congress who just paid themselves (0+ / 0-)

    $14,000 to take a month off think its OK to pay full time workers $290 a week.

    "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

    by Lefty Coaster on Mon Sep 02, 2013 at 12:36:53 PM PDT

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