This decline in union membership, which mirrors the rest of the countries’ drop, is one of the many reasons wages have stagnated, and why the top one percent of Americans could soon hold more wealth than the entire middle class.
As the Democratic candidates for president lay out their visions for restoring the middle class – and for addressing the major economic imbalances – it’s time to talk seriously about enacting an “Economic Bill of Rights,” a quintessential progressive idea first proposed by Franklin Roosevelt in his final State of the Union address in 1944.
An economic bill of rights was necessary, Roosevelt argued, because the political rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had proved “inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He proposed that all Americans had a right to a livable wage, freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, homeownership, medical care and education.
The time has arrived to coalesce around a third “Economic Bill of Rights,” and chief among these rights should be the protected right of workers to freely join a union.
Years before FDR’s speech in 1944, his National Labor Relations Act recognized the “right to self-organization [and] to form, join, or assist labor organizations.”
Then in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized that "everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests." And of course, the First Amendment has always similarly been read to protect freedom of association.
But with union membership rates falling precipitously over the past five decades, workers have been left with little or no say both about their futures and, pretty obviously from the figures above, about their real wage levels. All the while, too many corporations — multinational and medium-sized alike — challenge workers’ geographic immobility with their own unbridled capital and technological mobility.
Beyond improving the pay and the rights of those who are currently employed, we must recommit to investing more in workforce training and development for the future generations. The “Workforce Investment Act” was first passed in 1998 and later re-authorized as the “Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act” to strengthen federal worker training programs. From 2000 to 2015, however, federal funding for this vital program was cut by about 45 percent, from $5.1 billion a year to just $2.1 billion.
Two billion dollars per year is a paltry amount for the government to spend on American workers. According to a report by the National Skills Coalition, the U.S. spends just 0.1 percent of its GDP on active labor market policies, lower than any other industrialized nation aside from Mexico. Australia spends 24 times as much of its GDP on labor development, and Ireland spends 48 times as much. And yet America has the largest economy in the world.
The same report found that if the U.S. was to invest just $80 billion more over the next ten years in workforce development, seven million more Americans would receive intensive re-employment services each year. And more than four million more workers could earn industry-recognized credentials.
When we think of the values which make this country great, we think of freedom, equality and opportunity. But these values become meaningless for a workforce which isn’t free to protect its interests. It’s time that we match our policies to our ideals and that we again make emboldening our workforce a priority so that the American dream will be all of America’s reality.