Opinion: Union membership fixes wage disparity

Ron Bieber
"Working people are the backbone of this country, but we must always remain vigilant to protect our freedoms," Bieber writes.

The disparity in the wage gap between CEOs and working people continues to grow to obscene levels in our country. It wasn’t always this way. In 1965, the gap between CEO and workers’ pay was 20 to 1. However, this ratio exploded in the decades that followed, climbing to a 343-to-1 ratio by the year 2000. It has remained above the 300-to-1 level since then.

If you happen to be a working woman, the wage disparity is even worse.

Last week marked Equal Pay Day. This annual observance was started to raise public awareness of the pay gap between men and women. It is commemorated on the date that symbolizes how far into the current year a woman has to work in order to earn what a man earned in the previous year.

All working people in this country deserve a raise, but if you are a working woman, the need is that much greater. The best answer to address this inequality is to have strong, vibrant unions to allow workers the freedom to collectively bargain for better working conditions.

Inequality in any manner is wrong, but to address women’s workplace inequality, Susan B. Anthony said it best over 100 years ago when she said “Join the union, girls, and together say Equal Pay for Equal Work.”

The labor movement built America’s middle class. When working men and women exercised their freedom to join in union, they demanded a fair return for their work and better working conditions. It’s no coincidence that as unions have been under attack in recent years by elected officials and corporate special interests, the middle class has been shrinking, and wages for working people have been stagnant.

This erosion of worker’s collective voice has been used to manipulate the economic rules to benefit the wealthiest 1% and CEOs, hence the growing disparity between CEO and workers’ pay.

Union workers also benefit from the nondiscrimination policies unions fight for in our collective bargaining contracts to protect all working people.

When workers have the right to stand together, the gender pay gap also shrinks, with women in union workplaces making $231 more a week than women without a union voice. When women earn more, our families do better.

Even non-union workers benefit from the presence of a strong labor movement because unions set the standard for all working people. Through our collective voice we set a higher prevailing wage and create a race to the top as non-union workplaces must meet the economic standard we set in order to attract employees.

Evidence of this can be seen when looking at wages in so-called “right to work” states, where wages are 3.1% lower than non “right to work” states. What does that mean for the individual worker? “Right to work” costs them nearly $1,600 a year in denied pay.

Working people are the backbone of this country, but we must always remain vigilant to protect our freedoms. By standing together, we can change the rules of our economy and make sure all workers have a fair chance to make a wage that allows them the opportunity to provide for their families. We can use the power of our numbers to erase wage inequality.

Ron Bieber is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Labor Voices 

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.