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March 2014

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Collective Bargaining is the Answer

Last month, I was honored to address a group of leaders of unions, business, the professions and the academic world gathered to talk about ways to improve labor-management relations.

I spoke about a subject that has been on the minds of hundreds of thousands of our members for a long, long time, but one that has just recently busted open into the wider world — the growth of income inequality in the U.S.

The fact that it took so long is testimony to the sway that the arguments of our ideological opponents have held in the public debate. Income inequality is not a subject for a dry academic discussion. It has a real impact on the lives of real people.

The income gap between the 99 percent and the 1 percent is greater than it has been since the 1920s.

Between 1979 and 2012, the median worker saw an increase of just 5 percent in wages despite productivity growth of nearly 75 percent.

Research by Washington University and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published in 2012 shows that since 2009, inflation-adjusted spending by the top 5 percent has risen 17 percent, compared to just 1 percent for the other 95.

Wealth inequality is not just bad for workers. In a consumer-driven economy, it's bad for business.

The real answer is not going to come from government. The solution to income inequality is right in front of us — collective bargaining. It's time to recapture the broad acceptance of the labor-management relationship where both sides bring not only power, but intelligence, good will and perseverance to the table.

I believe the pendulum is swinging. A recent article in the Guardian noted that 61 percent of workers aged 18–24 support unions, with even higher numbers among women and minorities. The rise of so-called alt-labor groups such as the taxi drivers, car wash workers and home care workers are spontaneous movements for dignity and economic justice not formally connected with the more traditional unions.

The debate over income inequality can be the linchpin for a new era. We can achieve it if we focus not on redistributing wealth but redistributing power. Put it in the hands of working people in all occupations, and watch our economy and our society take off.


Also: Chilia: Saying No to Fast-Track Read Chilia's Column

Edwin D. Hill

Edwin D. Hill
International President