Who Killed the Unions?

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The fight between Republicans and unions has spread from Wisconsin to Illinois and Ohio, but nationally it has bloomed into broader discussion about the place of unions in the U.S. Conservatives say the presence of unions contributes to state deficits. Liberals counter that the decline of unions contributes to middle class stagnation.

Kevin Drum blames Washington:

If politicians care almost exclusively about the concerns of the rich, it makes sense that over the past decades they've enacted policies that have ended up benefiting the rich. And if you're not rich yourself, this is a problem. First and foremost, it's an economic problem because it's siphoned vast sums of money from the pockets of most Americans into those of the ultrawealthy. At the same time, relentless concentration of wealth and power among the rich is deeply corrosive in a democracy, and this makes it a profoundly political problem as well.

The importance of unions notwithstanding, Washington doesn't care about poor people is the liberal economist equivalent of "Bush doesn't care about black people." Without access to their therapy minutes, it's hard to know exactly how our electeds feel about median wage earners, but look at the legislative evidence. It's a complicated story. Support for labor has fallen, among the public and its representatives. But effective tax rates on the bottom forty percent have declined for a half century. Medicare and Social Security have expanded, thanks to new legislation for the former and wage indexing for the latter. Yes, deregulation and welfare reform argue for a rightward shift, but meanwhile income security spending has increased 33 percent faster than total mandatory spending since 1970 and that doesn't even include the rise in tax expenditures for working class families. It's too facile to say the poor are hurting because Washington doesn't care about them.

The decline in union membership is complicated and multivariable. The southward shift of labor to right-to-work states hurt labor. The decline of manufacturing as a share of the workforce from 25% in 1950 to 10% today hurt labor. Healthy post-war immigration pulled down wages in some industries and hurt labor. The rise of alternate liberal causes like women's rights and environmentalism hurt labor. Globalization and technology replaced middle income jobs and hurt labor. Drum acknowledges some of this, but he still concludes that "if Democrats had continued to vigorously press for more equitable economic policies, middle-class wages over the past three decades likely would have grown at about the same rate as the overall economy."

Hypotheticals are unprovable in either direction, but it's highly suspect that "more equitable economic policies" would have completely offset the political, demographic, technological and global challenges to middle class wages. Achieving decent pay for average Americans is an uphill climb, and one we should try to make. But we should also be honest and realistic about its steepness.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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