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The Politically Toxic, Economically Imperative, Unions

Joseph Hines

“They believe in teacher’s unions. We believe in teachers,” Governor Chris Christie declared to rapturous applause during his keynote address to the 2012 Republican National Convention. What he neglected to mention is that those all powerful unions have been in decline for years, now buried beneath the clout of idiosyncratic individuals and corporations. Throughout his speech Christie touted his boldness in taking on the status quo, highlighting unions as the third rail of modern politics. He framed his speech as speaking truth to power, but missed the target altogether.

He spoke comforting lies to the preexisting order.

The honest-to-god, politically fraught truth? Unions have never been weaker, or more necessary. Unions, once the bulwark of the lower and middle-classes, have wilted to a meager 13.1% of the workforce, half of the percentage that belonged to a union in the late 1970s. A new report from Lawrence Mishel at the Economic Policy Institute explores the connection between their striking decline and inequality’s similarly extreme rise and unsurprisingly finds a correlation, as well as many ways we’ve lost out beyond income.

The EPI report quantifies the impact of declining unionization in several interesting ways. Mishel, the report’s author, finds the union premium, or the difference in wages between workers covered by collective bargaining agreements and those who aren’t, to be substantial at 13%. This premium is also greater between low-income workers than between middle or higher income workers and it’s been most damaging for midde-wage men, who have lost the most income over the past forty years. But the benefits of unions go beyond wages. Mishel demonstrates that union membership substantially improves your chances of getting decent benefits, writing that “unionized employers pay 77.4 percent more in health insurance costs per hour.”

Union influence helps all workers by establishing industry-wide worker protection. Mishel's assessment of the influence of unions on the norms of their industries indicates “that deunionization can explain about a third of the entire growth of wage inequality among men and around a fifth of the growth among women from 1973 to 2007.”

In his only mention of a government program, Christie lauded how his father, with the help of “the G.I. bill he put himself through Rutgers University at night to become the first in his family to earn a college degree.” Last night, Christie seemingly forgot the other pillar of postwar middle-class success. Unions.

In an era of unprecedented inequality, Christie took on an enfeebled foe, whose decline will make it harder for the next generation of Americans to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Rising inequality will make it harder for the lower-classes to afford college, healthcare, and a home.

The middle-class of the next generation in New Jersey will be less prosperous than their postwar peers thanks to Christie's signature project.