Economists: Improve the Economy by Empowering Workers

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Attacks on unions isn’t anything new, even when workers are asking for safer conditions or a little job security. What is new is that economists are starting to realize that we need stronger worker groups to advocate for labour or the economy as a whole suffers. Over the last few decades we’ve witnessed the rise of massive corporations that bully governments and workers; inevitably this process will gut the productive parts of planet (with fantastic short-term gains!). So, if we want our economy to do well for decades on end we need to ensure that all people involved in it get a share of the benefits.

A complementary approach would be to increase workers’ power. Historically, this has been most effectively done by bringing more workers into unions. Across advanced economies, wage inequality tends to rise as the share of workers who are members of unions declines. A new paper examining detailed, historical data from America makes the point especially well. Henry Farber, Daniel Herbst, Ilyana Kuziemko and Mr Naidu find that the premium earned by union members in America has held remarkably constant during the post-war period. But in the 1950s and 1960s the expansion of unions brought in less-skilled workers, squeezing the wage distribution and shrinking inequality. Unions are not the only way to boost worker power. More radical ideas like a universal basic income—a welfare payment made to everyone regardless of work status—or a jobs guarantee, which extends the right to a government job paying a decent wage to everyone, would shift power to workers and force firms to work harder to retain employees.

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