This post originally appeared in the U.S. News & World Report.
In 2015, nearly 5 million American workers might get a pay raise. By joining together to ask for one. Through a union.
Minimum wage hikes, overtime expansion, paid sick leave and other policy improvements are important to raise wages in America. But the best way for workers to get a raise is by asking for one with a collective voice. That’s what workers do—bargain together in unions to improve our lives.
And this is an exceptional moment for raising wages through collective bargaining. More new contracts will be bargained by unions and employers in 2015 than at any other point in modern American labor history.
Autoworkers in Michigan, public workers in Illinois and New Jersey, communication workers at AT&T and Verizon, clerks at Kroger and Foodtown, postal workers, employees of Disneyland and others will negotiate wages and benefits. Government will not dictate the outcome. Workers expressing their collective voice will sit down with management and decide on a fair allocation of the rising profits resulting from the recovery.
Five million workers asking for a raise? Yeah, and it’s about time. All U.S. workers should ask for more. Wages have been stagnant for over a decade. In fact, between 1997 and 2012, the income of those in the bottom 90 percent fell by $2,868, even as workers’ productivity rose. Current data tell the same story. The last two months point to economic recovery and robust job growth, but with virtually no upward effect on wages.
What we are seeing is wage theft on a grand, macroeconomic scale. Workers feel deep frustration in the face of the relentless disparity between productivity and wages. I know, because that’s what they tell me. In every industry, in every state, at every hourly wage level. But workers don’t need any more economic analysis; we want solutions.
That’s why collective bargaining is so important in 2015 and long term. First, income inequality is not just a low-wage worker problem; falling wages are a fact for workers at every pay level up to the top 10 percent. Second, collective bargaining is the primary way to address wage stagnation across the whole economy. Income inequality is not a mysterious phenomenon; it results from the economic rules we have created. It can be solved by changing those rules.
And that solution must recognize the precarious position of workers acting alone. Again, today’s data support this assertion. A January story in The Wall Street Journal reported on a survey of U.S. workers that found while only 8 percent were satisfied with their pay, fewer than half had asked for a raise. The Journal concluded, “When it comes to pay, people are afraid to ask for more.”
Workers should not be afraid to demand what we have earned. Unions and collective bargaining are critical to righting this imbalance. Historically, when unions are strong, wages rise in proportion to profit. And it is not only union members who benefit; there is a spillover effect lifting the pay of all workers. From 1935, when the National Labor Relation Act was passed, to 1980, almost 70 percent of income growth benefited the bottom 90 percent and only 7.1 percent went to the top 1 percent.
Collective bargaining is ground zero in the debate about raising wages in America. It should be front and center as Congress considers policy and as presidential candidates announce agendas. Moreover, the results will illuminate the larger issue underpinning chronic wage stagnation: that vibrant worker organizations are key to restoring the balance of economic power in our country.
Even workers who are not yet represented by a union should be encouraged to speak up, especially with a collective voice. No worker should be afraid to ask for a raise, and federal law protects that right. Everyone who works should ask for a raise in 2015. We deserve it, and the health of our economy depends on it.