Bridging the Income Gap

There's obviously no easy way to bridge the income gap between the rich and the rest of us or to combat the other serious economic problems raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement. But keep in mind the crucial ­ if not decisive ­ role that labor unions can play in righting our economic wrongs.

Union members earn a lot more than non-union workers overall and within particular occupations, and in age, gender and racial groups, and so spend more. They have more and greater fringe benefits, a greater voice in community and political affairs and otherwise are in a good position to span the income gap as well as contribute to the growth of the economy that's so badly needed.

Unionized workers are paid nearly 30 percent more than non-union workers generally, a median of about $900 a week to about $700 a week.  That's an advantage of $4.95 an hour, or more than $10,000 a year, that can be spent to help boost the sagging economy.

The unionized workers' much greater access to employer-financed health care helps, too, as does their invariably longer paid vacations, their sick pay and, among other key benefits, the pensions that go to more than three-fourths of unionized workers but to only about 20 percent of other workers.

Unions clearly provide the purchasing power needed to drive the economy and narrow the income gap between hugely paid corporate executives and the people who do the actual work of the country. Unions could very well do that, in part by helping improve working conditions that would attract more workers to particular employers and help the employers retain workers and compensate them well.

Although unions have been declining in numbers to the point that only about
13 percent of today's workers are in unions, indications are that their numbers will be growing, thanks in part as a reaction to the current economic troubles.

The past practices of unions, in any case, indicate they'll undoubtedly provide lots of help to ease the current crisis.  They played a major role, for instance, in passage of the laws that set a minimum wage and a standard workweek, regulate on-the-job safety and provide workers' compensation for on-the-job injuries.

What's more, union members usually have more training and thus greater productivity.  Their unions commonly work on local economic development in partnership with employers, community groups and local governments and commonly invest union pension funds to help rebuild declining communities and, among other local projects, help finance moderate-­income housing.

Don't forget, either, that non-union employers sometimes offer pay and benefits equal to union pay and benefits in their areas, in hopes of avoiding unionization.

Unions, which had much to do with pulling the nation out of the Great Depression and helping establish a true middle class, are in position to provide help that's as necessary in 2011 as it was in the 1930s.