Inequality and Corporate Power

Multinational Monitor, May 2003


Here are 10 of the more important contributing factors to surging inequality in the United States.


Unions now represent less than 10 percent of the workforce in the private sector in the United States. Yet they still represent the single best means for workers to improve their economic conditions. There is a more than 28 percent wage premium for union membership in the United States -meaning the single fact of belonging to a union raises the average worker's wage more than 28 percent-and it is far higher in the area of benefits.

But even reference to the dramatic wage premium understates the importance of unions. Union power is collective power. When unions represent a higher proportion of the workforce-when there is greater "union density"-in a particular industry, unions can raise the overall industry wage rate, including for non-union workers. When unions represent a higher proportion of the national workforce, they can raise the national wage rate.

Even more importantly, when there is greater national union density, unions can exert more political power, to ensure the benefits and pain in the national economy is more equally shared.

As Kate Bronfenbrenner describes, the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base, vicious anti-union campaigns by employers and inadequate organizing efforts by labor has led to the drop-off in union representation in the United States.


The corporate globalization trade regime-manifested in 1 the rules of the World Trade Organization and other trade agreements-has freed corporations to locate production anywhere in the world for sale anywhere in the world. As Jared Bernstein recounts, millions of high-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United States as a result.

Workers who remain in the manufacturing sector are forced to compete in the race to the bottom, with union demands for wage gains replaced by employer demands for wage givebacks. Sometimes the employers really are unable

to compete with lower-wage producers in other countries (sometimes they are those lower-wage producers). Sometimes the employers simply use the threat to threat to enhance profitability. Either way, workers bargaining leverage is dramatically lessened. Workers lose. Owners win.

Moreover, the exact same threats are among the most effective at deterring workers from joining unions. Join a union, employers tell workers in the majority of organizing campaigns, and we'll have to close. We just can't compete if we are burdened by union wages and union bureaucracy (read: protection for worker rights).

Nowhere is the intertwined nature of the causes of inequality made more clear: Corporate globalization diminishes the union base and worker power. Weaker unions are less able to defend their jobs, either in direct negotiations with companies or in policy-making disputes in Congress. And on and on.

One way to place a floor on the downward push on wages is to maintain a respectable minimum wage. Because the minimum wage in the United States is set periodically, and not pegged to inflation, it is forever losing value, though periodically bumped up a bit when the drop gets severe and the political moment makes it hard for Republicans to defeat a minimum wage rise. There has been no progress whatsoever in the obvious solution to this problem, which is to raise the minimum wage and then peg it to the inflation rate, so that it rises along with the cost of living. Low-wage industries-led by the restaurant association-have led the Chamber of Commerce and the major national business lobbies to oppose minimum wage hikes.

Today's minimum wage of $5.15 has been stuck since 1997. In inflation-adjusted terms, its current value is almost a quarter less than at its peak in the late 1960s.

In one of the most vibrant economic justice campaigns in the United States today, many communities have passed living wage laws, requiring employers to pay not just a minimum wage, but a minimum wage sufficient to enable a family to survive. Unfortunately, these laws typically apply only to government contractors, or sometimes to recipients of government benefits, but not to the overall community. They are an important step forward, and provide some hope for the future; but for now have not managed to have broad nationally felt impacts on wage rates.


Although the market has come back down to earth to more reasonable levels in the last couple years, it has grown dramatically over the last three decades. The "sustainable" part of this stock market rise-meaning stock prices justifiable in relationship to earnings, or profits, and the prospect for future profits-reflects spikes of very high profits, including in the mid-1990s. Those high profits themselves were due to a variety of factors, but among them were the increased reliance on overseas manufacturing and monopolistic markets enabling corporations to impose excessive prices on consumers.

Popular myth to the contrary, the stock market gains accrued overwhelmingly to the rich. Edward Wolff explains that stock holdings are as concentrated now as they have been historically.


Although the federal tax code remains somewhat progressive-meaning higher income earners pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than lower earners-it is less so than it has been historically. The Reagan and Bush II tax cuts have massively reduced the tax take from the rich, and the currently proposed Bush tax cut would reduce the level still further. More than a third of the value of the current Bush proposal would accrue to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers, according to Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice. Nearly half of the benefit would go to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers.

State taxes, heavily reliant on sales tax, remain regressive; and the current state funding deficit is likely to lead states to increase regressive taxes.

The one very important offset in the gloomy tax story has been the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal tax rebate for the lowest income earners, which has meaningfully raised the income level of the poorest.


As Robert McIntyre explains, thanks to tax code revisions and fancy tax sheltering, the corporate share of paid federal taxes is down to approximately 7 percent-compared to 22 percent level in the 1960s.


The last three decades have seen a steady decline in traditional welfare payments to the poor, leaving them considerably worse off-though again, this condition has been considerably offset by the Earned Income Tax Credit. At the same time as they have cut welfare for the poor, local, state and federal governments have become far more generous in making gifts to the corporate welfare kings. To take two indicators: in just the period from the 1970s to the 1990s, corporate bailouts have grown from the level of hundreds of millions of dollars to hundreds of billions of dollars. The defense budget, which serves corporate welfare as much as any other purpose, has soared under the Reagan and Bush II administrations-a simple transfer from taxpayers to Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon and their shareholders.


The banking system systematically deprives lower-income and minority communities of the credit they need to build up investments and wealth. The services that are provided come increasingly from shady and price-gouging check-cashing operations and payday lenders. Meanwhile, the super-aggressive marketing of credit cards to middle-income people has led many to fall deep into debt, and forced to pay off huge accumulated debts at usurious interest rates.


Although it has loosened its grip on the money supply in recent years, at crucial periods over the last three decades the Fed has driven up interest rates and plunged the economy in recession. The resultant high unemployment rates diminished worker power and pushed down wages.


Although the routinization of obscenely high executive pay directly affects too few people to meaningfully impact overall income inequality, it has created a culture in which professionals and people in upper-income groups expect to be paid very generously. New class-based social norms have emerged about what constitutes a reasonable salary, and how a much a person "needs" to get by-what upper-income groups view as necessity is of course unavailable to most people in the country.

This culture, nurtured by new marketing campaigns advertising luxurious lifestyles and a media that more and more narrowly targets upper-income groups, has helped push up salaries broadly at the top.

But these riches are not available to all. Part of the culture has been the normalization and acceptance of a persistent and deepening income and wealth inequality, with the situation of middle and lower income groups largely absent from the news or popular culture.

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