How The Unions Can Still Save the Middle Class

Recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau confirms something that many of us have long suspected but, until recently, lacked the hard data to back up those suspicions.

Strong unions increase household incomes for middle class union and non-union workers alike.

Acting on this data, the Center For American Progress Action Fund has released a study that draws a crystal clear correlation between the demise of the unions and the corresponding reduction in middle-class earnings.

Mapping the Census data that has been released this fall to previous years also shows that over time the strength of the middle class and the strength of the union movement have tracked closely together. In 1968, the share of income going to the nation’s middle class was 53.2 percent, when 28 percent of all workers were members of unions. Since then, union membership steadily declined alongside the share of income going to the middle class. By 2010, the middle class only received 46.5 percent of income as union membership dropped to less than 12 percent of workers.

It’s no secret where the money has gone since the union movement went into decline. The share of pre-tax income that went to the richest 1 percent of Americans improved from 9 percent to 23 percent between 1974 and 2007 with even more stellar results for the wealthiest .01 percent.

The CAP study further confirms the findings published last month by Harvard’s Bruce Western and University of Washington’s Jake Rosenfeld in the American Sociological Review.

According to Western and Rosenfeld, the decline of the union movement accounts for a full one-third of the income inequality we have seen over the past thirty years.

That is not chump change by anyone’s measuring stick.

What this data makes more than clear is that without the strong organization of the unions, the middle-class has little—if any—chance of surviving let alone recovering its previous status in America. Without the organizing forces that delivered the American worker from the terrible working conditions and poor pay that existed before the American Federation of Labor brought our workers into the light in the early 1900’s, this nation will, inevitably, become a country of the rich and the poor—with nothing or no one in between.

Put another way, we will become Mexico—a beautiful country where the wealthy are rich beyond what we imagine, the working poor live in dirt floored hovels, and finding anyone who falls in between the two ways of life are few and far between.

Accordingly, for anyone who has a desire to see this nation continue to be the country it was intended to be, there must be a re-birth of the union movement and it must happen soon.

But is this even possible?

In an era where employers can threaten to ship jobs out of the country at the mere mention of unionization, does the union movement possess the clout to re-launch itself in an effort to save what is left of the middle class? Or is the nation simply prepared to view the middle-class as an outdated concept whose time has passed?

Not surprisingly, the answer begins with politics.

If there is to be any opportunity for the American middle-class to survive, there must first be jobs that can be unionized. And given that it is virtually impossible for labor to compete with the willingness of American business to take advantage of a fast growing talent pool overseas—talent that can be hired for substantially less money and work in dangerous conditions we would never accept—it is in the hands of the politicians to face up to the task of saving jobs here in the United States if they, in fact, want to preserve what has long been the American way of life that many throughout the world have striven to achieve.

Simply put, if big business is not going to put America first—and they clearly have no interest in doing so—then it is the responsibility of our elected officials to make big business put their own nation ahead of their corporate interests.

We’ve done it before. During a time of war, our elected officials did not hesitate to nationalize private industries for the benefit of the war effort. Big business didn’t like it but they did it any way because our politicians told them they had to do it.

We are clearly now in a war of equally great significance—a war to save a way of life for the majority of American citizens and their future generations.

Yet, many of our politicians have chosen not to fight this war.

With a helping hand from a few Democrats that have been all to happy to cross the aisle to support their big business buddies, the GOP has shown far greater interest in protecting the interests of big business than they’ve shown in protecting the American middle-class.

To demonstrate the truth of that statement, let’s go back a year to the remarkable death of a bill originating in the U.S. Senate entitled, the “ Creating American Jobs And Ending Offshoring Act.” It has always astounded me that the media never really brought home to the American people the significance of this piece of legislation and its ultimate demise.

The bill was designed to make it a bit more painful for employers to fire American employees and move their operations overseas while also rewarding American business when they replaced a foreign employee with a domestic worker.

Here is the summary (via The Examiner):

Creating American Jobs and Ending Offshoring Act – Amends the Internal Revenue Code to: (1) exempt from employment taxes for a 24-month period employers who hire a employee who replaces another employee who is not a citizen or permanent resident of the United States and who performs similar duties overseas; (2) deny any tax deduction, deduction for loss, or tax credit for the cost of an American jobs offshoring transaction (defined as any transaction in which a taxpayer reduces or eliminates the operation of a trade or business in connection with the start-up or expansion of such trade or business outside the United States); and (3) eliminate the deferral of tax on income of a controlled foreign corporation attributable to property imported into the United States by such corporation or a related person, except for property exported before substantial use in the United States and for agricultural commodities not grown in the United States in commercially marketable quantities.

Like the author of The Examiner piece, no matter how many times I read this bill, it is impossible to see how this legislation would not have resulted in more jobs here at home. And yet, 40 Republican senators —aided by four Democrats and Independent Joe Lieberman— voted against cloture and killed the effort.

How can we not ask why the Senate would block such an effort? At a time when our middle-class is hanging by a very slender thread, how could 100 United States Senators not unanimously agree that, if we are to remain the country we have always been, there is no choice but to deter business from taking our jobs out of the country?

Maybe these senators think they know something I do not know. Maybe they believe that it is already over and that the middle-class is no longer to be factored into their decision-making equation.

If this is the case, I believe they are wrong.

While the middle-class can still be saved, the effort to turn the United States into Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos will succeed if the middle-class voting block, many of whom insist on voting Republican, does not get around to realizing that voting GOP is clearly a vote to permit their children to descend into the life of the working poor.

It is that serious. And anyone who calls themselves a middle-class American who does not understand that when the entire Republican caucus in the United States Senate votes against a bill that clearly (no hidden agendas that I can find) motivates American business to keep the jobs here at home, supporting these politicians is a vote for the destruction of the American way of life most have come to appreciate yet see it now slipping away.

Don’t take my word for it.

Read the legislation I noted above. It is not particularly complicated and you will be able to understand what is says. Then, ask yourself how any American elected official with a desire to preserve the American way of life for those of us who are not a member of the wealthy class could vote against this bill.

You might also consider setting aside the union bashing that has become fashionable among so many whom once appreciated what the unions did for them. Just take a look at the census results and the CAP study and remind yourself how the unions played a huge role in making a good life possible for you, even if you never belonged to a union. The numbers don’t lie. Tea Party leaders do.

Rick Ungar

Rick Ungar is an attorney in Southern California and a frequent writer, speaker and consultant on health care policy and politics. He is a contributing writer at Forbes. Readers can reach him at rickungar [at] gmail [dot] com.