A Proposal for Working-Class Unions

Kambria Johnson

In recent years, we’ve heard the terms wealth inequality and its subset income or wage inequality. Quantifiable evidence of a multi-decade trend toward wealth inequality has been presented by left-leaning economists and think tanks, fueling the political activism of the Democratic Party’s left wing. The Urban Institute released an example of this type of data showing that in 1963, families at the top of the wealth distribution had six times the wealth of those in the middle, whereas by 2016, rich families had twelve times the wealth of those in the middle.

At the moment, the Covid-19 pandemic is starkly revealing what can reasonably be viewed as another economic misfortune of those on the lower end of the wealth spectrum. Many essential front-line workers, such as janitors, grocery store employees, health care workers, and child care workers, among others, have jobs that cannot be done from home via Zoom, email, and phone and are at a higher risk of contracting the virus due to the in-person customer-facing demands of their work. This increased risk, combined with relatively low pay for workers providing services that we all require during these difficult times, strengthens the case that this cohort deserves more respect and economic clout.

It’s difficult to ignore how the decline of labor unions neatly correlates with the rise in wealth inequality. Many people believe that what we’re seeing isn’t just correlation, but causation. The working class’s loss of a collective voice as a result of the long-standing chorus of anti-unionism has resulted in not only diminished political leverage, but also a drop in their living standards. Perhaps the income disparity argument is now poised to move beyond a claim supported by longitudinal data and charts to one of fundamental fairness for workers who are critical, especially in times of national emergency.

Now is a good time to discuss structural reforms that benefit the working class. The overarching goal should be to reorient the economic system so that everyone, regardless of wealth, can live healthy and safe lives while contributing to the country’s overall well-being. This will entail investigating and improving macro norms governing compensation, health care, the environment, safety regulations, family-friendly working hours, immigration, workplace grievances, and race relations. Increasing the power of low-income stakeholders does not have to be viewed as a zero-sum redistribution for the sake of rebalancing a ledger; rather, by restoring and reinvigorating a united voice for working people, overall prosperity and democracy are enhanced. People on the middle and lower rungs of the economic ladder also spend money. And plenty of it.

Working together to protect one’s economic interests is common among the ‘Haves.’ This need is met by Chambers of Commerce, business associations, and national trade organizations for business owners and management. So, why shouldn’t working people be given the ability to influence policy decisions through collective action? Unions serve in this capacity. Many of the worker and social protections that are now codified in law and that we enjoy today were initiated by unions. Social Security, child labor laws, antidiscrimination laws, workplace safety laws, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, 40-hour work week, and workers’ compensation laws are just a few of the now-commonplace benefits made possible by worker unions.

It’s unlikely that we’ll return to the same economy we had before the pandemic. We may be able to look back on a number of social changes brought about by the virus in the future. Hopefully, one of these changes will result in a reckoning for how the working-class segment of essential workers will be treated and prioritized. A resurgence of unionization for these workers is both justified and long overdue.