In the 1950s, union membership in the U.S. peaked at 28.3 percent. Manufacturing jobs were plentiful, more Americans were able to afford single-family homes and the automobile industry flourished. It was a decade of unprecedented economic growth.
Today, union membership nationwide has plummeted to 11.3 percent — with just 6.6 percent of the private-sector work force unionized, a recent Pew Center for Research survey reports. At the same time, America's income gap between the nation's richest 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent is now at its widest in 100 years, says a new study by Oxford University, UC Berkeley and the Paris School of Economics.
In fact, while the incomes of families earning $394,000 in the past year grew by more than 31 percent between 2009 and 2012, the incomes of everyone else increased by just .4 percent.
"Our nation's growing income gap is pushing the American Dream further and further from the grasp of the nation's working families," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.
The AFL-CIO, a NYSUT national affiliate, believes there is opportunity to reshape the future through labor. The national union, working with its state affiliates, aims to partner with allies of the labor movement to win economic security, build new models of representation that attract younger people, work with immigrants and their families, and improve labor laws so they better reflect the realities of today's workforce.
Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, wrote in a recent op-ed that too many New Yorkers are working at low-paying jobs that disappear in a "heartbeat." If the state is truly interested in addressing income disparity, Cilento said, it must change its approach to economic development.
"New Yorkers don't want a handout; we want a fair chance to succeed," he wrote. "We should expect the same spirit and commitment from the businesses we assist."
While the Great Recession has fanned the flames of the income gap, its roots stretch back over three decades as federal tax policies enabling corporations to avoid paying taxes coincided with a continual decline in union membership, said Dr. William Tabb, a professor of economics at the City University of New York's Queens College and member of the Professional Staff Congress, a NYSUT higher education affiliate.
Reduced government revenue has placed a greater burden on working Americans, he said, and the decline in unionization has had a tremendous negative impact on American wages.
When union membership rates are higher, all workers have higher incomes. Employers in non-union environments, Tabb said, will hike worker wages in order to keep unions out. When union membership is high, labor's voting strength is significant. "That's when you see progressive legislation," he said, "such as health coverage, retirement benefits and the protection of Social Security."
All workers are adversely affected by income disparity. Take, for example, the situations faced by college adjunct professors and School-Related Professionals.
United University Professions New Paltz Chapter President Peter D.G. Brown said the income gap between adjuncts and tenure-track professors is growing wider. Between 1970 and 2008, when adjusted for inflation, the rate of pay for adjuncts went down 49 percent. Salaries for full-time professors during that same period, he said, stayed about the same, while income for college presidents went up 35 percent.
Nationally, adjuncts make an average of $2,800 per course. At New Paltz, where Brown taught for more than 40 years, adjuncts make $3,100 per course. Full-time professors, he said, are paid three to four times more per class. Knowing they can save a substantial amount of money, colleges are loading their faculties with contingent instructors. Brown said nationwide, 74 percent of college professors are adjuncts.
While some adjuncts also work in other high-paying professions and teach only one class per semester, many others are trying to live off $20,000 per year without medical benefits or job security, Brown said. "There is no doubt these working conditions impact student learning."
Karen Arthmann, chair of the NYSUT SRP Advisory Committee and president of the Rush Henrietta Education Association Paraprofessional Chapter, has worked in her district for 28 years and makes less than $18 per hour. Other full-time SRPs with less experience earn as little as $10 per hour. Many SRPs find it difficult to pay for housing and cover other necessities such as gas, food and clothing.
Making matters tougher, many SRPs pay anywhere from $400 to $800 per month toward health coverage. But, with the economic challenges facing so many districts today, Arthmann said, it's a tough environment in which to negotiate. "If you want a raise," she said, "you are going to pay more for your health care, or you are going to see fewer benefits."
NYSUT will continue to push for increases to the minimum wage "to a level that provides workers the chance to lift themselves from poverty, and for a more progressive and equitable tax policy that shifts the burden from the middle class and forces the nation's wealthiest to pay their fair share," Iannuzzi said.