Read the full issue brief (CAP Action)
Despite being constantly thrown about by politicians and pundits alike, the term “middle class” has no agreed-upon definition. But regardless of how one chooses to define it, by most measures the middle class is struggling. Over the past several decades, wages for the typical worker have been stagnant while household debt as a share of income has nearly doubled and inequality has reached near-record highs. Whether one is concerned about middle-class wages, incomes, mobility, or their relationship to the rich and the poor, one policy solution can help strengthen the middle class: strengthening unions. Unions increase workers’ wages and benefits, boost economic mobility in future generations, reduce runaway incomes at the top, raise the share of national income going to the middle class, reduce inequality, decrease poverty, and improve workers’ general well-being.
Study after study has come to the same conclusion: When workers come together in unions, they can help make things better for themselves, and indeed most Americans. Joining together enables workers to negotiate for higher wages and benefits, and when unions are strong, these benefits can spill over into other nonunion workplaces. Unions of working people also help ensure that government works for everyone—not just those at the top—by encouraging people of modest means to vote and by providing a crucial counterbalance to wealthy interest groups. Their ability to improve conditions in the workplace and in our democracy means that unions play a critical role in building the middle class.
That is why policymakers need to make strengthening worker organizations a top priority. Unfortunately, today the percentage of workers in unions is about 11 percent and less than 7 percent in the private sector, figures approaching the lows of a century ago. This decline has contributed to myriad struggles for the middle class. This issue brief reviews the research showing the many ways that strong worker organizations are necessary to strengthen and grow the middle class.
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Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project