Since 1979, American workers’ productivity has increased over 80 percent. In that same time, the average income of the top one percent has increased more than 240 percent. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy, it would now be nearly $92,000. It’s currently $50,000. The fundamental purpose of a union is to balance the overwhelming power of those who are reaping all those gains in our economy with those who are creating those gains. Far from seeking to undermine the success of those at the top, unions simply insist that that success be shared.
Unions also matter because they’re good for business. In “The Good Jobs Strategy,” Zeynep Ton, a business professor at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, argues convincingly that “Even the most coldhearted, money-hungry capitalists ought to realize that increasing their work force, and both paying them and treating them better, will often yield happier customers, more engaged workers and — surprisingly — larger corporate profits,” as Adam Davidson reported recently in New York Times.
It’s not surprising to see that where there is worker solidarity there’s better pay: median yearly earnings of union members are $47,684 while non-union members’ median earnings are $37,284. However, you don’t have to be a union member to see the results. Western and Rosenfeld’s study on income inequality in the American Sociological Review highlights that in areas where unions are present, even non-union job wages are higher. Or, as historian Kim Phillips-Fein puts it, “The strength of unions in postwar America had a profound impact on all people who worked for a living, even those who did not belong to a union themselves.”
Injustice and inequality are still very much here. That’s why the tent is opening to new models, from worker centers to Working America. Unions need the next generation to understand the important and transformative role that unions have played in the modern economy, because the next generation of workers possesses the skills to keep wage fairness alive. Unions matter, and it matters that we learn how much they still do.