Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) introduced a commonsense resolution yesterday recognizing that strong labor unions help build a healthy middle class. The resolution would not change the law at all but would simply highlight the fact that unions provide important benefits to the 99 percent of Americans that need to work for a living by allowing them a voice in our economy and democracy. Our country desperately needs to hear this message right now, and it is a small but important step toward rebuilding our middle class. Unfortunately, instead of supporting Rep. Payne’s efforts, House Republicans are tearing away at Americans’ right to form unions.
Unions have won important rights for working Americans—including the 40-hour work week, safe and healthy working conditions, and social safety net programs—but they aren’t just an artifact of history. The American Worker Project has conducted extensive research—cited in Rep. Payne’s resolution—on how unions increase middle-class incomes today.
When unions are strong they can ensure that workers are paid fair wages, receive the training they need to advance to the middle class, and are considered in corporate decision-making processes. Unions also promote political participation among all Americans, give ordinary Americans a voice within our government, and help secure policies that support the middle class, such as Social Security, family leave, and the minimum wage.
But as unions became weaker over the past four decades, they became less and less able to perform these functions—and the middle class withered.
Over time, the strength of the middle class and the strength of the union movement have tracked closely together, as can be seen in the chart below. In 1968 the share of income going to the nation’s middle class—the middle 60 percent of the population by income—was 53.2 percent, when 28 percent of all workers were members of unions. Since then, union membership has steadily declined alongside the share of income going to the middle class. By 2010 the middle class only received 46.5 percent of income as less than 12 percent of workers were unionized.
Further, the states with the lowest percentage of workers in unions—North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas—all have relatively weak middle classes. In each of these states, the share of income going to the middle class is below the national average, according to Census Bureau figures.
Today, approximately 12 percent of American workers are unionized. If unionization rates increased by 10 percentage points—to roughly the level they were in 1980—the typical middle-class household, unionized or not, would earn $1,479 more a year.
And as unions have weakened, the lion’s share of the economy’s gains has gone to the wealthy rather than the middle class. The share of pretax income earned by the richest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled between 1974 and 2007, climbing to 23 percent from 9 percent.
Unfortunately, House Republicans are using every maneuver available to undercut working Americans’ right to unionize. A draft House budget bill released a few weeks ago would cut funding to the National Labor Relations Board—the agency charged with conducting union elections and investigating unfair labor practices—by 20 percent as compared to President Barack Obama’s FY 2012 budget request, and would prohibit the administration from modernizing union election procedures and requiring companies to post signs to inform workers of their right to organize.
Even worse, three-quarters of House Republicans voted to eliminate all funding for the NLRB last spring, which—if passed—would have prevented the enforcement of labor law for several months. And some House conservatives have signaled that they will be slow to appoint any new members to the NLRB even though two of the four board members’ terms expire this year—a move that will cripple the agency’s ability to act.
Rep. Payne’s resolution recognizes that Americans who work for a living need unions to advocate them in the market and our democracy. Unfortunately, House Republicans are so busy trying to destroy unions that they are willing to ignore what 99 percent of Americans really need—even when these Americans are taking to the streets to demand it.
Karla Walter is a Senior Policy Analyst and David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project at American Progress.