by California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski
There’s a threat to America’s economic future that’s so overlooked it’s gone almost unnoticed amid the endless debate over the debt ceiling and federal spending: massive income inequality.
This Labor Day, the gap that separates the very wealthy from the rest of us is as wide as it was in the Great Depression. Since the economic collapse of 2008, workers have suffered through joblessness, home foreclosures, reduced wages and benefits and a sustained assault on our right to collectively bargain. Did you notice that corporate profits are soaring and Wall Street bankers are receiving fatter bonuses than ever? And we wonder why our middle class is disappearing before our eyes.
When FDR gave workers the right to bargain collectively amidst the Great Depression, he did so because he believed strong unions would create a strong middle class. History proved him right. It’s a fact that when union membership increases, so do wages and benefits for ALL workers, not just union members. Unions raise the bar for everyone – which means even non-union employers offer better wages and benefits in order to stay competitive.
But the opposite is also true. Weakened unions lead to a weak middle class. As union membership has declined over the past 40 years, so have workers’ wages, benefits and working conditions. According to a new study published in the August issue of the American Sociological Review, the decline of union membership since the 1970s explains about a fifth of the increase in wage inequality among women and about a third among men.
In other words, the corporate assault on unions is dragging down the entire economy.
For more than 100 years, unions have been the primary counter-force to corporate greed and excess, pushing for common-sense labor standards like the minimum wage, weekends, health care and retirement security. But without strong unions, corporations have no counterbalance. It’s not a surprise that as union membership has declined, corporations have grown more and more powerful, and workers’ share of the pie has been reduced to crumbs.
The corporate CEO crowd still isn’t satisfied. Anti-union forces – both across the country and in California – are hell-bent on crushing workers’ rights, unions and the middle class. It’s not just in Wisconsin.
From San Jose to Costa Mesa, attacks on unions and workers’ rights are happening right here, in towns and cities across California. And now, right-wing extremists have launched an all-out assault on all of us by once again pushing for a “paycheck deception” ballot measure to silence our voice in political campaigns. If they succeed, Big Business execs will have cleared the field of any opposition, and income inequality will grow, wiping out any hope of the American Dream for most families.
Every generation has its fight for justice. The fight to rebuild the middle class and create a fair economy is ours. If ever there was a time to unite around our shared ideals, the time is now.
That’s why, this Labor Day, we all must come together– union members and non-union members, public sector and private sector – to beat back these attacks. Talk to your friends and neighbors. Join together with your co-workers. Volunteer with your union. Corporations may have the money, but that can never match our grassroots power.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” But sometimes, even history needs some help. It’s up to us to give it that boost so that we can create a brighter future for our families, children and grandchildren.