How to save the middle class? Unionize.

Marketplace Staff Feb 6, 2007

How to save the middle class? Unionize.

Marketplace Staff Feb 6, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: American organized labor’s not what it used to be in. Competition for jobs and the threat of cheaper imports have taken away union’s bargaining power.

It’s tougher to start a union, too. Today, California Democrat George Miller introduced a bill in the House that would penalize companies that would violate an employee’s ability to organize.

Commentator Beth Shulman says it’s about more than just workers’ rights.

BETH SHULMAN: Today, profits and productivity are up. But we’ve got the worst income inequality since the Gilded Age.

Wages are stagnating. Pensions and health coverage nose-diving. Working people can no longer afford many of the products and services they make or provide.

Unions that helped create the large, post-war middle class are disappearing. And it’s no accident.

Today, unions represent only 7 percent of the private sector workforce. Down from 35 percent during the heyday of the large middle class.

Unions are one of the most important tools we have for restoring and preserving the middle class. And private industry has been waging war on them. Fully one out of every four workers who try to organize a union gets fired.

A majority of unorganized workers say they’d join a union if they had a chance. But most won’t, because employers routinely harass, threaten and fire union organizers.

But look at what a difference a union makes. Research shows that unions raise most worker wages by 20 percent. In traditionally low-wage jobs — like security guards, child care workers, and nursing home aides — unionized workers earn 27 percent more than their non-union counterparts.

Not to mention that 86 percent of union workers get employer health benefits, compared to half of non-union workers. They’re also five times more likely than non-union members to have guaranteed pension plans.

Plus, unions remind politicians that average families need to pay rent, get health care, time off, and a pension to retire in dignity.

Instead, in recent decades, we’ve seen the elimination of the middle class.

If we want service jobs to be the middle-class jobs of the 21st century, just as auto and steel jobs were the middle-class jobs of the 20th, we need strong unions.

Without them, soon we’ll have no middle class at all.

RYSSDAL: Beth Shulman is the author of “The Betrayal of Work.”

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