The Middle Class Needs Strong Unions

As Illinois’ Voters Go to the Polls, An Important Message to Remember

In American government classes, students are taught that American politics is a pluralist system. In theory, they are told, this arrangement prevents extreme outcomes because competing groups tend to balance each another out. Theory, of course, does not always translate well into reality. Professors Gilens and Page demonstrate that the American political system is now dominated by the concerns of corporate elites and organized business interests. Despite campaigning as a populist outsider, the current frontrunner for the Republican Party is a multi-billionaire.

Since the Industrial Revolution, labor unions have sought to become the “pluralist” challenger to Big Business interests, adding a healthy dose of competition over ideas and values in America’s democracy. Certain obstacles very clearly limited the formation of a European-style economic system in America. The melting pot of America – with racial, religious, and ethnic diversity – has weakened “working-class consciousness.” Universal male suffrage prior to industrialization and ruthless attacks by the wealthy robber barons and racists also historically limited collective action by workers.

But today, labor unions today help fill the void of the missing safety net that exists in most developed economies.
In advocating policies to promote economic demand, the labor movement fights to create a high-skill, high-wage economy for workers. Labor unions also promote individual self-sufficiency– only 3% of full-time union workers are below the poverty line and rely on food stamps compared to 6% of full-time nonunion employees.

The United States needs a vibrant labor movement to give a voice to the economic interests of working men and women. Radcliff and Davis contend that the labor movement contributes to a nation’s level of political participation because it gives a voice to “lower and middle-status people” who are otherwise the least likely to vote. They find that every 1% increase in unionization statistically increases voter turnout by 0.2%-0.3% in American elections.

Voter apathy is at a historical high, although anti-establishment candidates are doing their best to change that. Wages for the middle and lower classes have been stagnant or declining. Income inequality is rising. At the same time, not coincidentally, the labor movement has been in decline nationally. The story is the same here in Illinois.

The protection of private contracts– including collective bargaining agreements negotiated freely between workers and their employers– is a fundamental duty of government. Strengthening the right to organize is just one solution to these problems.

But it’s an important one.


Frank Manzo IV is the Policy Director of the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI). Visit ILEPI at www.illinoisepi.org, follow ILEPI on Twitter @illinoisEPI, or like ILEPI on Facebook. This post is part of the “Frankonomics” series.

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