Unions Key to Middle Class

This is article is cross-posted from the AFL-CIO Now blog.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau today show that the middle class received the smallest share of the nation’s income since these data were first reported. The middle 60 percent of households received only 45.7 percent of the nation’s income in 2011, down from the historical peak of 53.2 percent in 1968.

There are many reasons for that decline: stagnant wages, more wealth and income going to the richest among us, globalization, the Great Recession and more.  

But writers David Madland and Nick Bunker at the Center for American Progress Action Fund say:

There is another often overlooked dynamic: the decline of labor unions….Over the past several decades, the decline in the unionization rate tracks almost perfectly with the decline in the share of income going to the middle class.

In their column, “Unions Are Necessary to Rebuild the Middle Class,” the pair writes, “By advancing the interests of the middle class in the workplace and in our democracy, unions help build and strengthen the middle class.”

In the workplace, workers who join together in unions are able to negotiate on a more equal footing with their employers. Unionization not only helps increase wages and benefits for union members but also can set a standard for employers who aren’t working with unions to follow when union density is sufficiently high.

A 10 percentage point increase in union membership, they write, would translate into an extra $1,479 per year for the average middle-class household, whether or not that household includes union members—about the same effect as boosting college graduation rates by the same margin.