Labor Day Movie Time: Once Were Unions – J.J. Goldberg – Forward.com:
by J.J. Goldberg
"Before saying goodbye to Labor Day weekend and heading back to work and school tomorrow morning, here’s a movie to get you into the spirit of Labor Day. It’s an hour-long documentary called “The Inheritance,” and believe me, it’s a great way to spend an evening. It was made in 1964 for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, back when the Amalgamated was still the living, beating heart of a still living and breathing American Jewish labor movement. It’s as moving a film today as it was then, and a thousand times more important. (Full disclosure: I grew up in the Amalgamated. My father spent nearly all his adult life working there, first as an economist, then as a lawyer.) It’s no secret that unions are on the ropes today. In their heyday in the 1950s they represented about 35% of the American workforce. Today it’s 11% — and less than 7% in the private sector. Why does it matter?
Journalist Timothy Noah answers that question today about as well as anyone has recently in his Labor Day column on MSNBC.com, “The most challenging issue facing liberalism today”: Why must liberals recommit themselves to labor unions, in spite of their imperfections and weakened state?
Mainly because the problem of ever-growing income inequality — a problem that didn’t exist for the half-century prior to 1979 — is intimately associated with labor unions’ decline. If you look at a line tracing the fall and rise in income share for the top 1% during the past century alongside a second line tracing the rise and decline in union membership, you will notice immediately that these lines are mirror images.
To be sure, income inequality has many causes. But the decline in labor’s clout is one of the most significant — more significant, for example, than income-tax policy. Labor income’s share of the non-farm business sector has been dropping since 1960, but it has dropped most precipitously since 2000. A shift in GDP from labor to capital is precisely what you’d expect to see happen as unions’ influence dwindles. It’s also a recipe for the sort of financial instability that’s prevailed in the U.S. economy since the 1980s.
This process won’t reverse itself, so anyone who professes concern about the problem of income inequality and the social problems that derive from it has to worry about the declining clout that workers exercise through labor unions. But the urgency of unions’ decline runs deeper than that. Financial journalist Justin Fox, executive editor of the Harvard Business Review Group, wrote an important post today on his HBR blog, bluntly titled “What Unions No Longer Do.” The short version: Unions no longer equalize incomes. Unions no longer counteract racial inequality. Unions no longer play a big role in assimilating immigrants. Unions no longer give lower-income Americans a political voice."
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