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Report: Unions Key to Reducing Income Inequality

The average chief executive of a Standard and Poor's 500 Index company made $13.94 million in 2017, or 361 times more money than the average U.S. rank-and-file worker. (Maxpixel)
The average chief executive of a Standard and Poor's 500 Index company made $13.94 million in 2017, or 361 times more money than the average U.S. rank-and-file worker. (Maxpixel)
September 10, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. – Researchers tapping more than eight decades of data say unions have played a critical role in reducing income inequality.

According to this month's National Bureau of Economic Research digest, when unions are strong, workers have bargaining power with their bosses, and unions also help drive policies that ensure that gains from worker productivity benefit everyone, including Social Security, Medicare, higher minimum wages and paid family leave.

As union coverage dropped sharply over the past four decades, researchers tracked a rise in inequality.

Sue Martin, president and secretary-treasurer of the Nebraska AFL-CIO, says she's not surprised by the study's results.

"Workers have been seeing stagnant wages over the past several years, while the top 1 percent are getting richer,” she points out. “And Nebraska, like other states, have progressively seen a decline in union membership, while the CEOs of the largest corporations' income has skyrocketed."

Martin says unions help wages go up for all workers because they help establish pay and benefit standards that even non-union firms adopt.

She notes that declines in union membership are no accident, but a result of specific actions designed to weaken unions, including so-called right-to-work laws.

Proponents maintain such laws protect workers against being forced to join a union, but Martin points out that forcing anyone to join is already prohibited by federal law.

Martin notes, especially in the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court Janus ruling that stripped public sector unions of the ability to be compensated for the costs associated with negotiating contracts, unions will have to get creative to build up their memberships.

Martin adds creating coalitions across communities impacted by economic inequality, and explaining the value that unions provide to non-members, are good first steps.

"Unions aren't bad guys,” she stresses. “Unions have historically fought to make the lives of working people and their families better.

“I don't think that people realize what an influence big business has on the policies that affect us."

Martin says it's easy for people to forget that ending child labor, establishing a 40 hour work week and other gains made by unions were not just handed out, but required a lot of education, agitation and organizing.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - NE