Inequality Rises as Union Numbers Decline

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By now, we’ve all heard about the growing disparity between rich and poor — and most of us have felt the effects. This chart, posted by Colin Gordon of the Economic Policy Institute, shows how income inequality corresponds to the rise and fall of union membership.

Gordon explains:

“One hallmark of the first 30 years after World War II was the ‘countervailing power’ of labor unions (not just at the bargaining table but in local, state, and national politics) and their ability to raise wages and working standards for members and non-members alike…. Into the early 1970s, both median compensation and labor productivity roughly doubled. Labor unions both sustained prosperity, and ensured that it was shared…

Over the second 30 years post-WWII—an era highlighted by an impasse over labor law reform in 1978, the Chrysler bailout in 1979 (which set the template for “too big to fail” corporate rescues built around deep concessions by workers), and the Reagan administration’s determination to “zap labor” into submission—labor’s bargaining power collapsed…. As a result, union membership has fallen and income inequality has worsened—reaching levels not seen since the 1920s.”

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  • JonThomas

    Union? What’s a Union?

  • Matt Versteeg

    They’re not unions, anymore–they’re political tools.

  • JonThomas

     Does make a person wonder whether the current needs of workers can be solved with the structures and organizations now in place.

    Unions have gotten a bad reputation. Perhaps new systems and orgs need to be implemented… because there is a need for the empowerment of labor now as much as ever.

    The common people are headed back to the wealth status of serfdom. Right now I think I would rather keep my dignity living in the streets than  working for bare subsistence wages that keep workers on a devastating financial tread mill, while enriching owners, management, and investors.

    If unions were allowed to go by the wayside, what structures could replace them…

    Besides, is it not necessary for labor to have such tools to have influence in the political sphere? Why would it be wrong for labor to make a political difference?

  • Roddie Mcshank

    Of course, they’re political tools.

  • Rgs

    Why do you think the airlines are going broke and cars costs so much? Unions! Why are all the jobs, especially in manufacturing, going overseas? Taxes and Unions! Unions used to be a good thing, but they have caused many of the problems they complain about!

  • Bub

    I am so tired of this 1% stuff — it all depends on where you stand.  Most people sitting at these “occupy” events are richer than about 99% of everyone in Africa.  How about pony up some of your money to them?  Although income inequality in the U.S. is bad and getting worse, a little perspective is nice now and again.  Go to and type in your income — you would be suprised where you come out.  The whole 1% thing is very parochial.

  • Bub

    Living in the streets?  Are you kidding?  You obviously have a computer, unless you are at a library.  I really think you overrate living in the streets. 

  • tnmc

    Interesting assertions.  Care to back them up with facts?

  • destroyideas

    This is irrelevant. Africa isn’t part of our political system.

  • destroyideas

    Haha! The airlines got in trouble after deregulation. Airlines all over the world do fine with union labor.

  • tnmc

    Interesting assertions.  Care to back them up with facts?

  • tnmc

    “Most people sitting at these “occupy” events are richer than about 99% of everyone in Africa.”False equivalency.  The cost of living in poorer countries does not demand that people in richer countries live like monks.

  • JonThomas

     You make huge assumptions here, do you not?

    You assume, first off, that I have never lived in the streets. That’s your first mistake in this comment.

    To your credit, you did think before you wrote your next arrogant assumption and mentioned libraries. However, you assume I am not using someone’s computer other than my own (or even a jointly owned computer.)

    Most American’s are conditioned to gain a sense of pride from self-sufficient ownership. Some of that pride can be good, even motivating. Such pride though, can put one it the position of looking down one other people and belittle them and the points they make when discussing important, life changing situations.

    I am soon going to lose my house. I do have choices, not sure which one’s I will make.

    One of the choices I face is whether to work for minimum wage until “something comes along…” that is, IF ‘something comes along.’

    So, in the meantime, while I express my opinions and open my sentiments, I truly would appreciate if, when you disagree, you please try not to make arrogant assumptions based on your own predilections.

    Thank you.

  • Bloughb48

    I think union members must also shoulder some of the
    responsibility.  Their LACK of
    ACTIVE participation and willingness to let their “leaders” run
    things, lead to a lot of irresponsible, an even criminal, behavior.  Union leaders began to get a bit too big
    for their britches and rough about the same time politicians needed an issue to
    take the heat off them (Mc Carthy). 
    Politicians took advantage of the situation (an innate political skill)
    and deflected reforms that might have been aimed their way.  They turned everyone’s attention to the
    union bad guys (and they were bad, just no worse than the politician, but the
    unions had no united team of good-guy-leaders and no strategy).  The chart roughly parallels the active
    involvement of regular members in their unions.  Once formed, folks relaxed and went about the business of
    working.  Unions, like everything
    else, are only as good as the humans of whom they are comprised.  Union members must be willing to KEEP
    active (be willing to take a TURN in a leadership position), and hold their leadership
    responsible.  I say all of this as
    a union member.

  • tnmc

    “Unions have gotten a bad reputation.”

    You assert this opinion without asking any questions as to why this is the case.  In other words you are willing to accept any propaganda fed to you, unquestioningly, by those people with the interests to do so. 

    That, more than anything, describes the decline and fall of Democracy in the West.

  • JonThomas

     This is such a false assertion I do not know where to begin. The heart of the matter will be seen if he comes back and comments…or if he is part of the right wing commenting machine.

  • JonThomas

     It does depend on where you stand.

    For example… it is not possible to compare the 99% in America to anyone in Africa.

    It is like comparing apples and oranges, seeing they are both round, and wondering why they taste different.

  • JonThomas

     Well said!

  • JMD

    I am a proud member of a union, and have a member of several unions.

    With my first union job I was disappointed that I needed to pay dues, just like I was disappointed that the FICA removed funds from my weekly pay.  But I soon got over that.
    Because of unions I received the care I needed when a pallet fell on my foot in the warehouse. (It still hurts me twenty-five years later, but I hate to think what would have happened without immediate care.)
    Because of unions I received a great healthcare plan for myself and my wife.
    Because of unions my family can get new glasses and dental work every year.
    Because of unions my family can get check ups and pay for doctors visits and prescriptions.
    Because of unions my wife’s Cesarean/son’s birth was paid for.
    Because of unions I received employee discounts on store items so I could give my family some sort of Christmas when we were just starting out.
    Because of unions I earned time and a half working night shifts, holidays, and over-time.
    Because of unions my pay-rate increases to keep up with inflation.
    Because of unions I qualify for merit pay increases.
    Because of unions I received sick days so I could recover from illness and be better at my job.
    Because of unions my daughter’s illness at birth was paid for.
    Because of unions I was able to be present at the birth of my children.
    Because of unions I was able to be present at my father’s funeral.
    Because of unions I received a skilled union representative in my corner when my supervisor was attempting to punish me for upholding federal and state safety laws.
    Because of unions we have federal and state safety laws.
    Because of unions we have whistle-blower laws.
    Because of unions I enjoy the freedom to speak and participate openly in the community as a citizen without retribution in the workplace.
    Because of unions I have a handbook to explain my contract.
    Because of unions I have brothers and sisters at my side when I need information and help.
    Because of unions I receive monthly newsletters and am able to keep current with others in my field.
    Because of unions I have respect in the workplace because I am not alone.

    I am a proud member of a union and my grandfather would be pleased because he was a proud member of a union as well.

  • JonThomas

    Exactly, and nor should the American populace live like slaves or serfs, even though some obviously want to defend the owner class and their exploitation of the 99%.

  • Jaime1947ross

    what about the fact that labor unions are diminishing along with labor – what we need are
    unions that represent the growing number of tech jobs

  • JonThomas

     I have asked why this is the case, but decided to not write a book on the subject, especially here is a short comment.

    I think my opinion is valid as there is no doubt that Unions have gain bad reputations.

    Shall we begin our enumerations with the mob ties that were formed in the 60’s and continue through today? Jimmy Hoffa, anyone?

    Union officials around the nation have been indicted for fraud and malfeasance.

    How about the Air Controller’s strike? How about laws that restrict public employees from striking, attaching penalties for work stoppages? How do these examples give people confidence in the power of Unions?

    I do not wish to keep enumerating…I think my point is made.

    I said simply that Unions have gotten a bad rep. You may add to my thought by saying what it SEEMS you mean…that Unions were GIVEN a bad RAP. That is a separate thought, a valid one, and one I also agree with, but… a separate thought.

    So, I will try to not assume about you and your thoughts, if you try to not make assumptions about me and my thoughts…thank you.

    Your mentioning of the propaganda is a good one though.

  • John Forest


  • John Forest

    I would attribute this to our inability to hold two disparate thoughts in our minds at one time. First unions weren’t perfect and probably needed significant reform. Second, unions were one of the biggest factors for the building of a middle class in America. We were encourage to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

  • Molly

    What would we do without Bill Moyers?  He is a National Treasure.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know what all the arguing is about. The graph is pretty clear. The non-union average American worker that isn’t rich and just making ends meet can barely afford the benefits a union provides, unless they put the money they aren’t paying a union into some sub standard healthcare policy. At that point they still don’t have the job security a union normally provides.

    Where is the argument for the rich in all of this? CEO’s pay millions or billions in bonuses to skirt taxes that would otherwise be used in infrastructure ect., and that just in itself is jobs lost. I’m just not seeing the argument for the rich. Why do the same thing we’ve been doing when it hasn’t worked? Trickle down economics are a joke and the middle class are going to pay the price in the end.

  • Timothy

    It is totally relevant in terms of fairness and ultimate goals. All of those who complain about unequal distribution of wealth seen to stop when it is their wealth that will be distributed. Either we want to help the poor or we don’t. The problem of poverty goes well beyond America’s borders.

  • OldManKensey

    Oh Please. Jobs are going overseas because of deregulation and corruption from Wall Street. 

    You want to keep jobs in house– tell all those companies leaving that when they get into some trouble, they better hope the Jamaican Navy can come rescue them. No taxes here- you are not an American company. 

  • OldManKensey

    Someone is drinking the corporate america cool aid. 

    You do realize corporate America spends about ten fold in the political system than unions ever did or will. Look what happened in Wisconsin.. Millions spent and NO ONE knows by who…. 

    Shadow government anyone…. and yea, its NOT the unions. 

  • OldManKensey

    I actually agree with both of you. Union leaders (way back when) did hurt the image of unions and there is a massive propaganda machine coming from corp America. 

    My thoughts on the old Union Leaders– how long will we hold that against unions? We don’t hate all corporations because of Enron, Murdock, the Banking Crisis. (Jon, this is not directed at you personally- I thought your post were right on– just a general thought). 

    But, why do we have this double standard? I think it is because of tnmc’s point.. the propaganda. 

  • Vince Lisanti

    I don’t see the direct connection. With manufacturing jobs primarily moved to overseas plants, of course union membership is low. It’s a reflection of there being fewer jobs.

  • mf

     So many ignorant people and so little time to care to explain ANYTHING to them.  Unions MADE the middle class…..READ SOMETHING BESIDES right wing BS, omg :(

  • mf

     Haven’t seen ONE “fact” from you……care to share any yourself?

  • mf

     Too many people in unions find it unnecessary to vote…..THEY could and should take an active, rather than passive, role. IF the leader of any certain is crooked – fire HIM – don’t disband all unions – that leaves us even MORE serfs for the corps :(

  • mf

     You mean like YOU swallow the rwnj baloney? Get over yourself, troll.

  • JonThomas

     Well ‘spoken.’

    I think organizations which serve the interests of labor and laborers are needed, and I do lament the decline of Union effectiveness.

    Your point about the “double standard” is a good one.

    I should confess that I personally, while not against business itself, do wish to see all corporations barred from doing business in the U.S.

    I find that privately owned and invested companies serve the personal interests of investors, workers, owners, and the citizenry of the hosting nation, much better than do corporations.

    I think personal responsibility, infused into our society (in this case, the business sector,) would make for a better world.

    However, I like your comment…thank you for your well-delivered insights.

  • Bub

    Slaves and serfs? Are you kidding? And I can just as easily say that the supposed 1% doesn’t have to live like monks because 99% don’t have what they do… If we are going to have a rational conversation about wealth redistribution I think we need to lose the hyperbole.

  • Bill Ellis


    No… not fewer jobs. Between ’58 and 2008 Unemployment  over time was relatively constant.. Employment moved from manufacturing jobs to service jobs.
    But that did not have to hurt union membership necessarily.  Union membership could have moved where the jobs were.  Why didn’t services industries just become unionized ?

    The GM became unionized because of favorable laws at the time and place.

    Walmart has avoided unionization because of the’s anti union laws.

    It has nothing to do with economics…

    Other  advanced nations have seen the same kinds of patterns…jobs moving from manufacturing to services…yet they still have high union membership…and less income inequity.

  • Jill Ulster

    So what do we do about it? As John Lennon said “You say you want a revolution, well you know, we all want to change the world”

  • Jill Ulster

     And so, instead of bashing unions and bringing them down. Pull non union people up with wages and benefits.

  • Jill Ulster

     As all who work very hard and many years for a living.

  • Sistahw

    Union workers aren’t paid too much. Nonunion workers aren’t being paid enough!

  • Bill Ellis

    Still, if even if you take your argument seriously…. alleviating inequity would be more effectively done by the 1% sending their wealth to africa than the middle class doing so.

    If the 1% held on their wealth and the middle class made themselves poorer by making the poor Africans only a bit less poor …we would still have incredible inequity.

  • JonThomas

     When you say “wealth redistribution,” do you mean taking from those who have to give to those who have not? If you do, then I don’t agree that conversation needs to take place. I see that as wrong.

    However, if you mean either revising the current system, or initiating a new one, which engenders a more egalitarian model, then  I am all for such changes.

    For now though, I assert that; although there are huge differences between the 1% and the 99%…and between those who live in western and industrialized nations vs. those who live in undeveloped countries there is still a valid comparison between modern day subsistence wage earners and the serfs and slaves of history.

    Of course there are differences, those cannot be denied, but to work 40 0r more hours a week, have all the bills which are necessary and/or mandated for life in today’s U.S. society, while being paid subsistence, and declining wages, equates to nothing more than the allowance necessary to placate the populace so they don’t rise up and load the guillotines.

    Working in modern society, unless you are in the upper middle class or above, means you are not working for your own enrichment, but rather for the enrichment of the owner class… soon to be caste if the trend continues.

    I contend this is the modern, developed nations’ form of serfdom.

    It may seem like hyperbole when compared to serfdom and slavery of a couple of hundred years ago, but that too may seem civilized when compared to older empires and tribal, barbaric life of even older history.

    Especially with the lifestyle advances that have been developed, the doors to alternative energies which have been unlocked but not opened, and the huge disparities in wealth between the 1% and the 99% (let’s not even discuss the differences between the 1% and the poor in undeveloped and under-developed nations) does the current  situation that a vast number of the poor (especially the working poor) find themselves in today mirror the situation of slaves and serfs of yesteryear.

  • JonThomas


  • Sebaird

    I think the Taft Hartley legislation should be mentioned, along with the way many corporations declared chapter 11 bankruptcy to negate their contracts with unions.  Taft Hartley made the major lever unions had, strikes, much more difficult.  The ease of chapter 11 just drove workers further from the middle class, losing benefits and pensions.  

  • JonThomas

     First off, taxation needs to be based on use of services.

    For example…Corporations make use of, and cause much more wear and tear on, publically funded infrastructure in a year, while qualifing for and recieving more tax loopholes and breaks than single citizens do in a life time.

    The Corporations want to get rid of the EPA and other Government agencies, but they, and the owner class are the very reasons we need such agencies, they should fully fund them.

    Another example…when it comes to Unions, does anyone know if the Union leaders make the same wages, and have the same benefits as the membership they represent?

    Those are 2…I’ll let others put in 2 cents. :)

  • Bill Ellis

    Some food for thought for Conservatives who bemoan, the government transferring wealth from the elite to the common man …

    Personally , I see people banding together to negotiate the value of labor as the FREE MARKET solution to wealth distribution.
    I know conservatives believe that it is wrong for people to band together… that it is COERCIVE . But that is a moral argument, not an economic argument.

    Income inequity produces class conflict…like it or not…you are not going to be able to moralize the average guy to go along with it for ever.
    As long as he has a meaningful vote…He WILL eventually find away to transfer some of the wealth away from the elite into his pockets. (Witness Obamacare )

    Would you rather have the Government setting up entitlements, or would you rather have Unions raising wages, so people don’t need entitlements ?

  • Bill Ellis

    We don’t need a revolution… we just need to change the laws to make it easier to unionize.

  • JonThomas

     I realize that you are speaking to “Conservatives” who hold a certain ideology, but I have trouble seeing how people banding together to achieve goals means they are being immorally coercive.

    The ability to influence an outcome through solidarity is as much a freedom as wanting to do business and make profit off of, and within the borders of,  a nation’s citizenry.

    I enjoyed reading your appeal, but I’ll need more discussion and consideration of that thought.

  • JonThomas

     Well described.

  • Yurika Kawahara

    Several factors involved here are often forgotten. The factors of technology , overseas competition, and the changes in how business’s are organized and run. The pace of change since the 50’s has grown exponentially faster and faster in each of these areas and Unions are having a hard time keeping up. As my generation often liked to say the times they are  a changing. If Unions are to survive they must change and adapt.

  • Jerry Fair

     Yurika-Unions cannot adapt because the game is rigged. How can unions stop outsourcing jobs overseas? How can unions stop the assault going on by owners and CEO’s constantly undermining union membership? All we ever hear about is lazy overpaid union members but what about lazy overpaid CEO’s? Nobody ever mentions them. Yes the times they are a changing and unions are being thrown under the bus by the  congress, the white house, and business leaders across the board.

  • destroyideas

    It’s not totally relevant in terms of fairness and ultimate goals, unless you’re making these claims about yourself. The Occupy movement isn’t some Marxist utopia event, it’s about those who contribute to the growth and success of the economy being rewarded by being included in the profits.

    But there are also other aspects to it, and some of those include fair trade arrangements with impoverished nations who do also contribute to our economic success. And it’s the Tea Party, not the 99%, who thinks we should cut all foreign aid.

    The distribution of US Dollars is what’s relevant, because we who live in this political system create the currency and the markets for the USD. We are the ones who pay the taxes in the USD.

    Look at this chart again, it shows how Unions help the working class to share in their productivity, which creates greater income equality. Unions should also be supported overseas. But us, in our political bubble, don’t have the power to change the political bubbles of other peoples. All we can do is make sure our corporations, and ourselves as individuals, aren’t taking advantage of weak political systems.

  • destroyideas

    Conservatives support the unionization of capital (corporations – pro business), but oppose the unionization of labor (Marxist, socialist, communist, Nazi, feminist, liberal, dolphinsex).

  • destroyideas

    If we could organize and unionize labor, we would see laws change. That’s how it began.

  • destroyideas

    Taxation based on use of services sounds fine, but it completely negates the whole point of taxation.

    Taxes by their very nature take from who have to provide resources to those who don’t.

  • destroyideas

    SEIU is a services industry union. 

  • JonThomas

     I wonder then, what is the goal, or “whole point of taxation?”

    You mention a “nature” of taxes being…to ” take from who have to provide resources to those who don’t.”

     Is the goal really to redistribute wealth and create resources for those who can’t do so for themselves, or is the goal something else?

    To me, the goal of taxes is to fund Government services and provide the securities of life outlined in the Preamble to the Constitution.

    There are is no doubt that some taxes go to services which do cause a redistribution of wealth, but that is not the goal or the “whole point of taxation.”

    Such “redistribution services” are in place to ensure security for citizens. However, most Government services are not based on “redistribution”, they are based on providing security and infrastructure.

    Since commercial interests use such security and infrastructure more aggressively than single citizens, they should not receive tax breaks.

    I think, for example, one of the worst taxation mistakes which are made everyday are tax breaks to companies to establish factories and businesses in a certain locale.

    It may seem a good incentive for bringing jobs to the local people but often causes more harm than good.

    The business then has the upper hand and a voice in all things happening in that area. The business itself should not be a citizen(or a person, as apparently is vogue, and unfortunately for now, codified.) The owner, if they live in the area can be a citizen, with a voice  same as everyone else, but not the business itself.

    Such personification of business is what causes the power imbalance under which we are all suffering. Business is a tool, not a person.

    If the people who run that business want to use the roads, or need roads to operate, then they need to fund those roads at a fair percentage of the wear and tear they will cause. A personal use car does little wear and tear on a road compared to a semi-truck.

    If a business uses, or sells products which pollute, they should be taxed higher, not given breaks. If a commercial farm plants corn to produce ethanol, they should not be given incentives for that endeavor. Either the business model stands or it fails.

    The banks should not have bailouts.

    I am working on brevity so I’ll stop there.

    But, I do enjoy the discussion.

  • JonThomas

     Good point.

  • Cris

    Bub, what I find strange is what a friend calls “Wallmart Republicans”… That is people who decry “wealth redistribution” and “class warfare” against the rich but they themselves are not rich.  It’s like they have Stockholm syndrome.  The 1% do pretty well for themselves in tax shelters and elaborate trusts yet it’s people like you who moan for them (assuming you don’t make your income from a $60 million trust fund).  
    I personally don’t care about equality.  This world is not fair and never will be.  However, I know the very rich have access to laws and the legal structure to insure they will remain on top.  It is up to the middle class to do what they can to fend for their interests.  Call it class warfare but you would be a fool to believe the very rich didn’t   lobby for laws that helped them get rich and stay rich.

  • Mkw

    Easier to unionize?  A local plant has had unions formed twice in the last 12 years and then voted to break the union twice.  If the union is not doing any better than management at keeping workers happy, they will fail.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    One candidate for the US presidency in the election of 2012 embraces union workers in the public interest and as a measure of national security. The other exploits labor for personal gain.

    ” … we must recognize the fact that to-day the organization of labor into trade unions and federations is necessary, is beneficent, and is one of the greatest possible agencies in the attainment of a true industrial, as well as a true political, democracy in the United States.”


  • Lightside Warrior

    These 2 articles say it all:
    CEO gets cool $44M severance package for one day of work
    City’s police will now earn the wage of McDonald’s cashiers