Even for those of us who are not union members, we all have a debt to early labour organizers who stood up for the rights of workers, got them a greater share of the economic pie, and helped create the middle class which we now take for granted.
The middle class was a radical idea at one time. The growing middle class of the early to mid twentieth century was seen as a sure sign of progress. And it was, although we rarely ask why.
So why does it matter if more people are better off?
Using data from the United Nations on all sorts of measurable standards, researchers have found that income equality in a developed country is a great predictor of crime rates, drug use, murder rates, infant mortality, obesity, teen pregnancies, etc. A country’s gross national product or average income, on the other hand, have little to no bearing on these statistics.
Developed countries that have larger gaps between rich and poor also have higher murder rates. A larger gap between rich and poor predicts a greater infant mortality rate.
The United States leads the world’s developed countries in the gap between rich and poor. It has surprisingly high rates of murder, infant mortality, drug abuse and crime for a developed country. The United Kingdom is not far behind the United States. Canada lies somewhere in the middle of developed countries, while Scandinavian countries and Japan generally lead the pack.
You can watch researcher Richard Wilkinson give a short presentation here (http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html). His graphs show these abstract ideas very concretely.
In his presentation, he jokes that any person who wants their child to live the American Dream should probably move to Norway. The American Dream, at its heart, is all about social mobility and social mobility is also tied to a lower income gap.
Wilkinson notes that it doesn’t really matter how a country keeps its income gap small. Norway does it through taxation and the welfare state, while Japan keeps taxes low but pays better wages to all.
If your goal is to live in a safe and healthy environment, giving your neighbour a hand up and making sure more people are earning a fair wage will help achieve this goal. Simply growing the GNP will not. There’s data to prove this.
The thing is most politicians are more concerned with “growing the economy” and “creating jobs” instead of making sure people are getting a fair wage. Unions, while they’re not without their flaws, do fight for fair wages.
It’s something to keep in mind this Labour Day.