We’ve heard in recent years the oft used terms wealth inequality and its subset income or wage inequality. Quantifiable evidence showing a multi-decade trend toward wealth inequality has been presented by left-leaning economists and think tanks fueling in large part the political activism of the left wing of the Democratic Party. An example of this type of data was released by the Urban Institute showing how in 1963 families at the top of the wealth distribution had six times the wealth of families in the middle, whereas by 2016 the rich families had twelve times the wealth of those in the middle.
Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic is starkly revealing what can reasonably be seen as another economic misfortune of those on the lower end of the wealth spectrum. Many of the essential front line workers, such as janitors, grocery store employees, health care workers, and child care workers, among others, are those who have jobs that can’t be done via Zoom, email, and phone from home and are at higher risk for contracting the virus given the in-person customer-facing demands of their work. This increased hazard in combination with relatively low pay for workers providing services we all need during these tough times bolsters an argument that this cohort deserves more respect and economic clout.
It’s hard to ignore how the decline of labor unions correlates rather neatly with the rise in wealth inequality. Many believe it’s not just correlation we’re seeing, but causation. The loss of a collective voice from the working class due to the long-standing chorus of anti-unionism has led to not only their diminished political leverage, but also to a drop in their living standards. Perhaps the income disparity argument is now poised to go beyond just a claim supported by longitudinal data and charts to one of fundamental fairness for workers who are crucial, especially during a national emergency.
Now can be a time to talk about structural reforms that benefit the working class. The overarching goal should be to reorient the economic system such that everyone, no matter where they live on the wealth spectrum, can live healthy and safe lives while contributing to the common welfare of the country. This will mean examining and improving macro norms governing compensation, health care, the environment, safety regulations, family-friendly working hours, immigration, workplace grievances, and race relations. Increasing the power of low-income stakeholders need not be seen as a zero-sum redistribution simply for the sake of rebalancing a ledger, but by restoring and reinvigorating a united voice to working people overall prosperity is enhanced and democracy is strengthened. People on the middle and lower rungs of the economy spend money too. And lots of it.
Working in concert to fortify one’s economic interests is widespread among the ‘Haves’. Chambers of Commerce, business associations, and national trade organizations fill this need for business owners and management. Why therefore shouldn’t working people be given capabilities to drive policy decisions through collective action? Unions fill this role. Many of the worker and social protections now codified into law which we enjoy today began as union initiatives. Social Security, child labor laws, antidiscrimination laws, workplace safety laws, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, 40-hour work week, and workers’ comp laws are just some of the now commonplace benefits realized because worker unions conceived, supported, and fought for these standards.
It’s unlikely we will snap back to the same exact economy we had before the pandemic. In the future we may look back on a number of social changes the virus will have jolted us into. Hopefully, one of these modifications will be a reckoning for how the working class portion of essential workers is to be treated and prioritized. A resurgence of unions for these workers is justified and past due.