Declining unions and Michigan's paycheck blues

Aug 30, 2013

  There’s a bumper sticker I occasionally see that says: Unions: The People Who Brought You the Weekend. For most Americans, that is certainly true. Unions created not only the weekend, but the modern middle class, something we tend to forget these days.

Yes, unions became complacent and some became corrupt. Some did not do enough for women or minorities. But all in all, they did far more good for America and the American worker than harm.

Unions are, however, widely unpopular with a sizable section of the public these days, and an even larger percentage of politicians.

The Republican majority in the Michigan legislature seems to have essentially declared war on unions, especially public sector unions. Unions have been in a long membership decline, something that may accelerate as the effects of becoming a Right-to-Work state kick in.

Well, there‘s a new snapshot of our state‘s workforce out this afternoon, a study sponsored by the highly respected Michigan League for Public Policy. The title says it all: Labor Day Report: Michigan‘s Paycheck Blues.

The report doesn‘t specifically address unions. But it does show dramatically what has happened to workers and wages in this state. It begins by saying, “While wages have gone up for higher earners in Michigan, the majority of Michigan workers earn less than workers did 30 years ago, after adjusting for inflation.”

Worse, this is especially true for African-American workers, and the gap between wages paid to whites and blacks is getting wider. And the study found “it is also clear for many workers, one job is not enough to meet the needs of themselves and their families.”

In other words, good-bye weekend, and good-bye middle class. The study, which was released today, is clear, concise, completely documented, and makes for sobering reading.

Thirty years ago, this state had the fourth highest median wage in the nation. Now, we are 24th and falling. Worse, our median wage has actually dropped by an inflation-adjusted seven percent -- the worst wage drop in the nation, except for Alaska.

Little of this is surprising to anyone familiar with the loss of manufacturing jobs and the near-collapse of the auto industry. But I was stunned that the gap in hourly median wages between white and black workers is more than four times what it once was. Some of this seems due to educational disparity.

African Americans are twice as likely as whites to have less than a high school education, and whites are almost twice as likely to have graduated from college.

You would think this study would be front-page news today, and that our politicians would be scrambling to try and fix these problems.

After all, as the study succinctly notes, “when wages are low, the (entire) economy suffers.” The authors make two recommendations: We should raise the minimum wage, to make up for its erosion due to inflation. And we should work harder to make post-secondary education of all kinds accessible. You might think overcoming what this study reveals would be our biggest priority, and in a rational world, that would probably be right.

But sadly, we have to cope with the world we’ve got.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.