Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

The Link Between the Decline In Union Membership and Growing Income Inequality

Bruce Western, Professor of Sociology at Harvard, has released a new study showing the link between the decline in union membership and growing income inequality in America. The study, released in the American Sociological Review, shows that deunionization is one of the main culprits in the squeezing of the Middle Class.

Our study underscores the role of unions as an equalizing force in the labor market,” said Western. “Most researchers studying wage inequality have focused on the effects of educational stratification—pay differences based on level of education—and have generally under-emphasized the impact of unions.”

While this theory has been long discussed, Western’s latest research shows that deunionazation is much more relevant to the current problem than past researchers had concluded. In his Mother Jones article, “Major Study Links Decline of Unions to Rising of Income Inequality,” Josh Harkinson makes connects three main dots:

1)The threat of unionization caused non-unionized employers to raise wages; that threat disappeared along with unions.

2) Unions occupied a bully pulpit; knocking them off left the moral case for equality vulnerable to attack. (What do you mean Viacom’s CEO isn’t worth $85 million?)

3) Workers lost their Washington lobbyists, and with them, any hope of winning political battles for better wages and benefits.

Unions have long been the most powerful, if not only voice for pay equality. As they begin to lose power, pay equality is losing hope. The American Sociological Association study, which was co-written by Jake Rosenfeld, a Sociology professor at University of Washington, corroborates this assertion:

“For generations, unions were the core institution advocating for more equitable wage distribution,” said Rosenfeld. “Today, when unions—at least in the private sector—have largely disappeared, that means that this voice for equity has faded dramatically. People now have very different ideas about what’s acceptable in terms of pay distribution.”

Interestingly, the study finds that union decline explains little of the rise in between-group inequality.

“Unions standardize wages so that people with similar characteristics—if they’re union members—tend to have similar wages,” Western said. “So, it makes sense that deunionization has little impact on between-group inequality, which, by definition, exists between groups of people that are different.”

From 1973 to 2007, inequality in hourly wages spiked 40 percent while union membership for private-sector male workers fell from 34 to eight percent.


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