As work becomes increasingly a matter of machines building or moving other machines, workers either lose their jobs or—if they are fortunate enough to keep their jobs—become vastly more productive. Productivity surged in the U.S. during the early years of the current downturn when companies laid off workers by the millions and replaced them with machines. Revenues per employee at the S&P 500, the Wall Street Journal reported, rose from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2010.
And yet, the wages and benefits of employed Americans experienced no corresponding increase as workers’ productivity rose. Indeed, over the past quarter-century, as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have reported, all productivity gains have gone to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans. In the quarter-century following World War II, by contrast, productivity and median household income both rose by 102 percent—but that quarter-century was the only period in American history when unions were strong.
When Mitt Romney announced his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate in August, conservatives swooned for two distinct reasons. First, Ryan was existentially one of them. Second, they exulted, Ryan’s selection meant that the presidential contest would be a battle of ideas, pitting their vision of a radically shrunken state and diminished social benefits against the Democrats’ support for social guarantees and a mixed economy.
The Republicans got their battle, all right. And they’re losing it catastrophically.
The College Board released its data on 2012 SAT scores on Monday, and beneath the headlines (which tallied how much SAT scores have slipped as more and more students take the test) was a revealing picture of the influence of students’ household income on their performance.
The influence couldn’t be more decisive. The board measured household income in increments of $20,000 – starting with students from households making $0 to $20,000 annually, then $20,000 to $40,000, all the way up to $160,000 – then an increment of $40,000 ($160,000 to $200,000) and then a final category of more than $200,000. And SAT scores rose considerably at every step in the income scale. The poorest students, from households making less than $20,000 had a mean combined score of 1322 out of 2400; the next highest, 1397; then 1458, then 1497 – all the way to a score of 1722 for students from households making more than $200,000. That’s a 400-point difference between our richest and poorest students.
A common refrain among union critics is that Americans no longer need unions—that unions were well and good for the exploited sweatshop workers of a century ago, but today’s empowered Americans need no such crutch.
With workers’ incomes falling, and with the United States leading all industrial nations in the percentage of its workers in low-wage jobs, it’s increasingly clear that today’s we need unions for many of the same reasons that the workers of 1912 did: They’re exploited and underpaid. But if it’s only the nation’s most exploited workers who need to band together, why have America’s most talented employees formed unions of their own?
Jamelle has already blogged about the devastating video of Mitt Romney speaking to a fundraising event that Mother Jones’s invaluable David Corn posted today. For those of you who may have missed it, here’s a partial text of what Mitt said in answer to a question about Obama voters: