Why ‘Janus’ Figures to Juice Income Inequality in America

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

The U.S. Supreme Court’s just-announced decision in the Januscase surprised no one who pays attention to America’s highest judicial panel. Every analyst following the case expected the Supremes to rule against America’s public sector unions. And that’s exactly what the high court — by a 5-4 margin — did.

The impact from this decision? That will surprise no one who pays attention to how modern economies work: The Supreme Court’s decision in Janus will leave the United States still more unequal.

The five justices who decided Janus never, of course, mentioned anything about inequality in their ruling that public sector unions cannot collect representational fees from the nonmembers they are legally required to represent. The Janus majority justices talked instead about protecting First Amendment rights. But that lofty philosophizing merely served as a convenient cover for our right wing’s continuing assault on the basic human right to justice on the job.

This assault — an effort bankrolled over the years by a relentless gang of fiercely anti-union deep pockets — has been remarkably effective.

Back in the 1950s, over a third of America’s workers belonged to unions. And that statistic underplayed the actual extent of the nation’s trade union presence. In the private sector, outside the South, unions represented over half the workforce in the decades right after World War II.

The workers unions didn’t represent in those years directly benefited from this heavy trade union “density.” Nonunion employers simply couldn’t hire and keep workers unless they improved what they had to offer in pay and benefits.

What does exist in the United States today: a level of income and wealth inequality not seen since the 1920s, another era of minimal union influence. The history of America’s past century paints a vividly clear picture: Inequality in America has increased in the years when unions have been at their weakest and decreased in the years when unions have been at their strongest.

Mainstream economists have been slow to acknowledge that connection. The conventional economic wisdom has blamed our contemporary inequality on irreversible trends like advancing technologies and globalization. But more recent mainstream research has emphasized how crucial a role union density plays in income and wealth distribution.

Researchers from the International Monetary Fund have examined the economic experiences of 20 developed nations between 1980 and 2010. Most all of these nations showed a declining union presence over the course of these years, with that decline severe in some nations — like the United States — and much less severe in others.

The researchers — Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron — found declining union density “strongly associated” with the growing share of national income going, within each nation, to the richest 10 percent of the population.

“The decline in union density,” this IMF research indicates, “explains about 40 percent of the average increase in the top 10 percent of income share in our sample countries.”

Part of that growing income share of the already affluent reflects the lower wages of workers in nonunion workplaces. The de-unionization that “weakens earnings of middle- and low-income workers,” the IMF researchers explain, “necessarily increases” the income share of corporate executives and shareholders.

Another part of that growing top 10 percent income share reflects the loss of influence over basic public policy decisions that average wage earners wield when unions grow weaker. That shrinking influence leaves “dominant groups,” the IMF researchers observe, better able to “control the economic and political system in their favor.”

Other global economic bodies — like the OECD, the official economic research agency of the developed world — have concluded that our current high levels of inequality do no society any good.

“By not addressing inequality,” as OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría has pronounced, “governments are cutting into the social fabric of their countries and hurting their long-term economic growth.”

Last year, trade union leaders from around the world descended on an OECD Ministerial Council Meeting in Paris to make the case that significant progress against inequality will only come when workers have the bargaining power to “benefit from structural and technological change.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has totally ignored that union warning with its Janus decision. Come to think of it, the U.S. Supreme Court has totally ignored growing economic inequality. The rest of us? We can’t afford to.

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Reposted from Inequality

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Last year, he played an active role on the team that generated The Nation magazine special issue on extreme inequality. That issue recently won the 2009 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. Pizzigati’s latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), won an “outstanding title” of the year ranking from the American Library Association’s Choice book review journal.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Human Service Workers at Persad Center Vote to Join the USW

From the USW

Workers at Persad Center, a human service organization that serves the LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS communities of the Pittsburgh area, voted last week to join the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

The unit of 24 workers, ranging from therapists and program coordinators to case managers and administrative staff, announced their union campaign as the Persad Staff Union last month and filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

“We care about our work and the communities we serve,” said Johanna Smith, Persad’s Development, Communications, and Events Associate. “We strongly believe this work and our connections to our clients will only improve now that we will be represented by a union.”

The Persad workers join the growing number of white-collar professionals organizing with the USW, especially in the Pittsburgh region. Their membership is also in line with the recent work the Steelworkers have been doing to engage LGBTQ+ members and improve contract language regarding issues that affect their lives.

“Workplaces are changing and evolving, and the labor movement is changing and evolving along with that,” said USW Vice President Fred Redmond, who oversees the union’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee as well as the USW Health Care Workers Council. “This campaign gives us an opportunity to diversify our great union while uplifting and empowering a group of workers who give their all for others.”

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