A great piece in today’s New York Times by Joe Nocera, who admits that liberals—many of whom made their way in the world thanks to unionized parents—made a “terrible mistake” by turning their backs on labor unions.
Relying on Timothy Noah’s latest book on income inequality, “The Great Divergence,” Nocera writes:
Noah places the high-water mark for unionism in the mid-1950s, when nearly 40 percent of American workers were either union members or “nonunion members who were nonetheless covered by union contracts.” In the early postwar years, even the Chamber of Commerce believed that “collective bargaining is a part of the democratic process,” as its then-president noted in a statement.
But, in the late-1970s, union membership began falling off a cliff, brought on by a variety of factors, including jobs moving offshore and big labor’s unsavory reputation. Government didn’t help either: Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 sent an unmistakable signal that companies could run roughshod over federal laws intended to protect unions — which they’ve done ever since.
The result is that today unions represent 12 percent of the work force. “Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share,” writes Noah, “and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical.” Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, has estimated that the decline of unions explains about 20 percent of the income gap.
Nocera ends his piece where Noah ends his book on income inequality:
…if liberals really want to reverse income inequality, they should think seriously about rejoining labor’s side.
A fitting thought on this recall election day in Wisconsin, where the Republican governor decided to start a war with unions and union workers.
I posted this graph last September and it seems appropriate today: