By Editor-in-chief
updated 1/16/2007 9:52:31 AM ET 2007-01-16T14:52:31

“If unions are so great, what is happening?” That’s not a question organized labor leaders generally like to hear, but Andy Stern had to deal with it.

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Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing unions, had dropped into an online conversation about the growing economic gap between the so-called “haves” and “have nots” in the United States. His three-part solution stirred a debate about the decline of organized labor in America.
“There have only been three large-scale ways that America has raised wages and distributed wealth more effectively,” Stern wrote in a HOTSOUP.com “Loop.” First, the market can adjust, Stern said, but even former Fed Chairman Greenspan concedes the gap between the rich and the rest of the population is growing so wide and so fast that it threatens democratic capitalism.

Second, the government can narrow the gap through tax policies, minimum wages and overtime rules. But Stern said the Bush administration is instead redistributing wealth upwards.

Finally, Stern said unions that are willing to be partners with employers can be part of the solution. “I appreciate this is not a popular solution in some quarters,” he wrote.

As if to prove his point, a member of the HOTSOUP community named “Dreamer” pointed out that union membership has declined from 20 percent of the workforce in 1983 to less than 13 percent. At the same time, unionization for government workers is on the rise. “If unions are so great,” Dreamer asked, “what is happening?”

Stern quickly replied. “I appreciate that public sector workers have started at times to see themselves in better economic conditions than some private sector workers, but the problem is that private sector workers’ wages and benefits are falling,” he said. “The Census Bureau says that American workers have not gotten a raise for five years. Wages are at the lowest share of the economy in history and profits at a record high.”

“The issue is not growth but distribution. College graduates lost 5 percent in real wages. Now white collar non-union jobs are going overseas,” the union boss wrote. “American needs a plan and modern unions are part of the solution.”
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