Two of the most commonly cited reasons for the lack of more liberal policymaking in the United States are the decline in unions and the rising class bias in voter turnout. In the 2014 midterm congressional elections, the Democrats’ rout was largely attributed to a failure of their coalition to turn out at the polls. What is rarely examined, however, is the relationship between a decline in voter turnout and the dwindling number of union members. And as that turnout has declined, the control of the financial class over the entire political system—Republican and Democrat—has taken hold.
Over the last several decades, union membership in the United States has declined precipitously, from 24 percent of all wage and salary workers in 1973 to 11.1 percent today. At the same time, our economy has increasingly begun to favor the wealthiest members of society. The labor share of income has reached the lowest level it’s been since 1929, and that diminished income is distributed incredibly unequally (see chart). According to data from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the richest 1 percent of Americans now take home the same share of wage income as the bottom 50 percent.
The decline in unionization is due to several factors but research suggests that politics played the most important role. David Jacobs and Lindsey Myers, sociologists at Ohio State University, find that “reductions in union strength attributable to policies endorsed by Reagan and by later neoliberal administrations helped create the acceleration in inequality after 1981.” Laws like so-called “right to work” legislation and Supreme Court rulings such as 2014’s Harris v. Quinn have gutted union protections. The impact of this decline on widening inequality is clear, but the reason for this connection is not often clearly sketched. While conventional wisdom holds that unions bolstered wages through collective bargaining, new evidence suggests that unions played an equally important role as the “organizing centers of the working class.”