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The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave. It is also the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developed country (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. In contrast, the European Union’s 28 nations guarantee workers at least four weeks’ paid vacation.
Among the three dozen industrial countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage — just 34 percent of the typical wage, compared with 62 percent in France and 54 percent in Britain. It also has the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers among that group, exceeded only by Latvia.
All this means the United States suffers from what I call “anti-worker exceptionalism.”
Academics debate why American workers are in many ways worse off than their counterparts elsewhere, but there is overriding agreement on one reason: Labor unions are weaker in the United States than in other industrial nations. Just one in 16 private-sector American workers is in a union, largely because corporations are so adept and aggressive at beating back unionization. In no other industrial nation do corporations fight so hard to keep out unions.
The consequences are enormous, not only for wages and income inequality, but also for our politics and policymaking and for the many Americans who are mistreated at work.
To be sure, unions have their flaws, from corruption to their history of racial and sex discrimination. Still, Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson write of an important, unappreciated feature of unions in “Winner-Take-All Politics”: “While there are many ‘progressive’ groups in the American universe of organized interests, labor is the only major one focused on the broad economic concerns of those with modest incomes.”
As workers’ power has waned, many corporations have adopted practices that were far rarer — if not unheard-of — decades ago: hiring hordes of unpaid interns, expecting workers to toil 60 or 70 hours a week, prohibiting employees from suing and instead forcing them into arbitration (which usually favors employers), and hamstringing employees’ mobility by making them sign noncompete clauses.
Numerous studies have found that an important cause of America’s soaring income inequality is the decline of labor unions — and the concomitant decline in workers’ ability to extract more of the profit and prosperity from the corporations they work for. The only time during the past century when income inequality narrowed substantially was the 1940s through 1970s, when unions were at their peak of power and prominence.
Many Americans are understandably frustrated. That’s one reason the percentage who say they want to join a union has risen markedly. According to a 2018 M.I.T. study, 46 percent of nonunion workers say they would like to be in a union, up from 32 percent in 1995. Nonetheless, just 10.5 percent of all American workers, and only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers, are in unions.
Corporate executives’ frequent failure to listen to workers’ concerns — along with the intimidation of employees — can have deadly results. On April 5, 2010, a coal dust explosion killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. A federal investigation found that the mine’s ventilation system was inadequate and that explosive gases were allowed to build up. Workers at the nonunion mine knew about these dangers. “No one felt they could go to management and express their fears,” Stanley Stewart, an Upper Big Branch miner, told a congressional committee. “We knew we’d be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us.”
The diminished power of unions and workers has skewed American politics, helping give billionaires and corporations inordinate sway over America’s politics and policymaking. In the 2015-16 election cycle, business outspent labor $3.4 billion to $213 million, a ratio of 16 to 1, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. All of the nation’s unions, taken together, spend about $48 million a year for lobbying in Washington, while corporate America spends $3 billion. Little wonder that many lawmakers seem vastly more interested in cutting taxes on corporations than in raising the minimum wage.
There were undoubtedly many reasons for Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, but a key one was that many Americans seemed to view him as a protest candidate, promising to shake up “the system” and “drain the swamp.” Many voters embraced Mr. Trump because they believed his statements that the system is rigged — and in many ways it is. When it comes to workers’ power in the workplace and in politics, the pendulum has swung far toward corporations.
Reversing that won’t be easy, but it is vital we do so. There are myriad proposals to restore some balance, from having workers elect representatives to corporate boards to making it easier for workers to unionize to expanding public financing of political campaigns to prevent wealthy and corporate donors from often dominating.
America’s workers won’t stop thinking the system is rigged until they feel they have an effective voice in the workplace and in policymaking so that they can share in more of the economy’s prosperity to help improve their — and their loved ones’ — lives.
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The upper chamber adjourned last week for its annual August recess.
By Igor Bobic
Democrats on Sunday called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reconvene the upper chamber to vote on House legislation that would expand background checks for gun buyers in the wake of deadly mass shootings in Texas and Ohio over the weekend.
“One awful event after another. Leader McConnell must call the Senate back for an emergency session to put the House-passed universal background checks legislation on the Senate floor for debate and a vote immediately,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-V.t.) similarly urged McConnell to bring the Senate back into session following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, which took place within 24 hours of each other. At least 29 people died and scores more were injured in the two shootings.
The Senate adjourned last week for its annual August recess. No votes are scheduled until Sept. 9 and most lawmakers are meeting with constituents in their home states. Some also typically travel abroad during recess on congressional delegation visits to other nations.
One Republican senator indicated Sunday he would be willing to go back to Washington to discuss gun violence.
“I’d leave tonight, I’ll go tomorrow. It doesn’t matter to me, this is such an important issue and an issue that we sometimes only get part of the picture because of the mass shootings,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” referring to the 2015 Charleston church shooting in his state.
Earlier this year, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill requiring background checks on all firearm sales in the country. But the measure has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate, with McConnell unwilling to bring it to the floor for a vote.
In 2013, the Senate voted on a similar bill that would have expanded background checks to all gun purchases. It failed to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold to advance, however.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the author of the measure alongside Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), on Sunday called on Congress to pass “bipartisan proposals such as my legislation with Senator Joe Manchin to expand background checks to all commercial firearm sales.”
“While no law will end mass shootings entirely, it’s time for Congress to act to help keep our communities safer,” Toomey added in a statement.
Other Republicans, such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, suggested the federal government has no good solution to stemming gun violence.
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. Sadly, there are some issues, like homelessness and these shootings, where we simply don’t have all the answers,” Cornyn tweeted Sunday.
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