Amid all the discussions are familiar calls to raise the minimum wage, buttress the food stamp program, and expand health insurance to the nation's needy. Yet absent from the conversation is a proven and powerful way to reduce poverty: strengthening the labor movement. Historically, unions have played a vital role in supporting the most vulnerable, despite the fact that very few union members were then, or are now, themselves poor. Cross-nationally, countries with powerful labor movements have lower poverty rates. And, in the U.S., recent research by the sociologists David Brady, Regina Baker, and Ryan Finnigan finds that states with strong unions tend to do a better job reducing the number of Americans living “on the outskirts of hope,” as President Johnson memorably characterized the issue.
How have unions reduced poverty? Both directly and indirectly. Directly, by helping to double the wage levels in industries as varied as textiles in New England, California canneries, and department stores in the nation’s largest cities, as the historian Nelson Lichtenstein has found. Prior to their organization, wages for bottom-rung occupations in these industries were extremely low. Likewise, maritime work was once brutal, disorganized, and temporary – until unions successfully signed up thousands of port employees along much of America’s coastline.
But unions are not simply economic organizations. They are political ones too, and through their political efforts unions have consistently championed poverty-fighting policies, indirectly helping low-wage Americans. Take food stamps, a program whose funding was recently cut by Congress. Current controversies surrounding food stamps are nothing new. During the course of its existence, many lawmakers have lambasted the program as overly generous and in need of reform. Key segments of the labor movement have intervened against these efforts, repeatedly, during decades of attacks from budget-cutting politicians. During the mid-1970s, for example, organized labor took to the courts to fight for the program’s solvency: Over 50 labor unions joined various other organizations and sued the federal government over proposed cuts to food stamps. Half a decade later, unions would threaten court action again.
Or take the minimum wage. As I explore in my book, unions have been pressuring elected officials for over half a century first to establish and then to raise the minimum wage, although not all their battles proved successful. Legendary labor leader George Meany once castigated President Jimmy Carter for failing to accede to union demands to increase the minimum wage to $3.00/hour. Meany claimed to the New York Times in 1977 that Carter’s intransigence was “a bitter disappointment to everyone who looked to this Administration for economic justice for the poor.” More recently, the campaigns to increase wage floors in states and localities across the country have been heavily underwritten by labor unions.
Finally take New York City's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who in his inaugural address promised to “take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities,” by combating inequality and lifting up those at the bottom of society. If not for the Working Families Party (WFP), a party funded and co-founded by some of New York’s still-powerful unions, de Blasio’s political ambition may have been stillborn. His 2009 campaign for public advocate was managed by the WFP, and the party considers him a longstanding ally. As documented by Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect, whatever successes the mayor may have in narrowing the yawning income and wealth gaps in the city will also be due to the WFP: The new mayor has the party to thank for the 20 allies that comprise the “Progressive Caucus” on the city council.
While organized labor remains strong in New York, it has been devastated elsewhere. Nationally, private sector organization rates have plummeted from approximately 35 percent to 5 percent. Public sector unions are fighting rearguard battles even in such traditional labor strongholds as Wisconsin and Illinois.
We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. One clear lesson of the last half century is that if you take away unions you lose the financial and organizational resources behind various efforts to support the poor. Quite possibly, you lose New York’s new mayor. Over the next 50 years, winning the new War on Poverty will require a mix of creative policy initiatives, many of them now being touted by politicians across the ideological spectrum. But it will also require something almost nobody is discussing: a revitalized labor movement.
Adapted from What Unions No Longer Do by Jake Rosenfeld. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. All Rights Reserved.
Jake Rosenfeld is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, co-director of the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest (SSN-NW), and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology (CSDE), the West Coast Poverty Center (WCPC) and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. He received his PhD in Sociology from Princeton University in 2007. For more information, please see www.jakerosenfeld.net.