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Unions still matter

New evidence suggests that unions may be more important than Democrats in reducing inequality

April 15, 2015 2:00AM ET

This year the Republican war on unions has returned with a vengeance. In former labor stronghold Illinois, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner is pursuing right-to-work legislation — which allows workers to gain the benefits of union representation without paying dues — and looks likely to succeed. Wisconsin became a right-to-work state last month, and its Republican Gov. Scott Walker looks set to ground a presidential bid in union busting, recently saying his political fight with unions prepared him to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Supreme Court appears ready to overrule its Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, which allows unions to collect dues from nonmember public sector workers who nonetheless benefit from collective bargaining.

With the enemies at the gate, the liberal elite seems to have finally learned to love unions. Nicholas Kristof writes that, contrary to his earlier opinion, “we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.” Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a key architect of Bill Clinton’s finance-friendly economic policy, recently argued, “Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth.” And in “The Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity,” which is likely to become the centerpiece of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the commission, co-chaired by Ed Balls and Lawrence Summers, concludes that “we need to support the growth of unions.”

But it may be too little, too late. Democrats did little to defend unions when it counted. Under President Jimmy Carter, Alfred Kahn began deregulating the airlines. Carter then signed into law legislation deregulating railroads and trucking (both hobbling powerful unions). President Bill Clinton pushed for the North American Free Trade Agreement against union opposition and deregulated finance, greatly empowering capital. To be fair, some of these pressures came from global trends, but public policy played a key role in tilting the field against labor. Now Republicans are fighting to drive a final spike in the heart of the most effective anti-inequality movement in history. If liberals do nothing to shore up unions, their decline will only continue. That will have important implications for inequality.

What unions do

Unions not only give their members a voice at work but also can have much broader political effects. By mobilizing voters and contributing to campaigns, organized labor is in effect the only lobbying group operating in the interest of ordinary Americans.

In a 1998 study, political scientists Benjamin Radcliff and Martin Saiz found that “the relative strength of the labor movement across the American states is one of the principal determinants of policy liberalism.” They found that the rate of unionization has a dramatic effects on spending for Aid to Families With Dependent Children and education as well as on tax progressivity and that these effects are stronger than Democratic governors and Democratic legislatures. As Radcliff told me, “strong labor unions are able to influence public policy, so as to create programs … that benefit everyone in society, not merely organized workers.”

Unions are the most important institution in the fight against inequality.

One way unions reduced inequality was by boosting voter turnout, which gave them political leverage. It’s rarely noted, but the campaign for Seattle’s $15 minimum hourly wage could not have succeeded without a massive, union-led voter registration drive. Many studies have confirmed that unions boost voter turnout and that their Election Day mobilizations push candidates and parties to the left.

Percent reported voting, union and non-union households

Source: ANES, 1948-2008.

In a country where few politicians come from a blue collar background, unions have often been a conduit for workers to enter politics. Political scientist Nicholas Carnes found that “a 10-point increase in the percentage of the state that belonged to labor unions was associated with a 1-point increase in the percentage of state lawmakers from the working class.” Given that politicians’ occupational background and wealth influences their voting behavior, this is another important way unions can promote policies beneficial to the working and middle classes.

The right-to-work revolution

But unions have always faced deep opposition, especially in the South, where many of the first right-to-work laws were passed. Historian Elizabeth Shermer writes, “The central message in the Southern right-to-work campaigns was preserving the Old South’s racial order.” Southern elites feared that an organized working class would be a threat to the racist social and economic practices that had long defined the region. They successfully kept collective bargaining at bay with laws that forbade unions from requiring beneficiaries of its negotiations to become members and pay dues. These right-to-work laws appealed to non-elites by channeling widely held anti-government individualism. But labor law expert Raymond Hogler notes that the question has often been posed in deceptive terms:

Many polls show a strong majority of Americans are against making workers pay union dues to keep a job. That’s the wrong question. When workers in a union are asked whether anybody benefitting from a collective bargaining agreement should pay dues to support the agreement, they say yes. 

As right-to-work laws spread from the South to the rest of the country, the results have been devastating. A paper by Holger, Steven Schulman and Stephan Weiler shows that right-to-work states have seen an 8.8 percent decrease in union density and that these laws account for slightly more than three-quarters of the difference in union density across states.

Another study found that from 1989 to 2002, whether a state had a right-to-work law was more important than partisan control of the state government in determining the progressiveness or regressiveness of the state’s taxes. This conclusion holds up at the global level, according to a recent International Monetary Fund study showing that lower unionization rates were associated with an increase in the share of income going to the top 10 percent of the population.

Political actors

The importance of these studies is clear: Unions are the most important institution in the fight against inequality. But for too long, many liberals seemed happy to watch unions disappear. Part of the problem is that they misunderstood unions as primarily economic institutions, interested in parochially negotiating wages and benefits for their members. In reality, unions are far more important as political actors promoting policies that benefit the working class and middle class as a whole. As legendary United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther put it in 1970:

"There’s a direct relationship between the ballot box and the breadbox, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls." 

It’s nice that the Kristofs and Summerses of the world have finally caught up with Reuther. We can only hope it is not too late.

Union membership and share of income going to the top 10%

Source: Economic Policy Institute, 2015.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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