“All that serves labor serves the nation. All that harms is treason. If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool. There is no America without labor, and to fleece the one is to rob the other.” — Abraham Lincoln.
Union membership among American workers is at a record low. Only about 12 percent of American workers are unionized, the majority in the public sector. Not since the 1920s have unions represented such a small fraction of the American workforce.
At the same time union membership is going down, poverty in America is going up. Nearly 50 million Americans live at or below the official poverty line. Last year, median income fell for the third consecutive time. As the number of poor increases, the middle class continues to shrink, poverty moves from the cities to the suburbs, and hunger is now a fact of life for a growing number of our citizens.
The decline of unions and the increase in poverty are not unrelated. When unions thrived, the middle class flourished and grew. The decline of unions has corresponded with the decline of the middle class. Unions formed an essential counterbalance to corporate power. It is no coincidence that in 1980, when unions were still relatively strong, the average CEO of an American corporation earned 42 times what the average worker made. Along with the decline of the unions in the years since has come a nine-fold jump in CEO compensation. Today the average CEO is paid 380 times that of the average worker, and that number continues to rise. Without unions, there is no counteracting force to unchecked executive power, and the proof is there for all to see.
To cite just one example of how out of balance our system of compensation has become, 62 percent of American teachers must now work a second job to make ends meet. Teachers’ salaries are so low that an average teacher is priced out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas. Teacher pay is now on par with that of a bartender.
Whereas 65 percent of Americans lived in middle class suburbs in 1970, today that number has fallen to 44 percent. Record numbers of people — at least 45 million — are on food stamps, and one in five American children are poor. Fifty million Americans do not have health insurance.
The statistics go on and on, but it is agreed by virtually everyone that we are living in a period of income inequality not seen since the 1920s. And while most Americans are struggling or just treading water, the wealthiest have become richer by quantum leaps. Today, 1 percent of Americans possess 43 percent of the national wealth. The 400 wealthiest Americans have more money than the poorest 150 million.
From the 1930s on, unions provided a necessary counterweight to corporate power. Unions offered a way for the poorest people to gain entry into the middle class. Unions offered, through their political efforts, a voice for people whose interests were not represented by candidates backed by corporations. With that counterbalance removed, the power and influence of the wealthy has grown until now it is threatening to overwhelm the rest of us.
The middle class will rise again when unions rise again. If we are to avoid becoming a two-tier nation, inhabited by a small number of wealthy people while the rest are poor and struggling, unions must be reborn. Their decline has been disastrous; their rebirth could be a salvation for the country.
Mark James Miller is president of the Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, California Federation of Teachers Local 6185. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.