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Democracy and Unions

Democracy and Unions

From David Pepper's Labor Day 2023 Pepperspectives

While we celebrate unions, workers and all the good they fight for, it’s also a good day to remember the link between democracy, wages and public outcomes more broadly. And how powerful a force unions can be in saving our democracy, and lifting those outcomes.

[On August 31st], the conservative Toledo Blade wrote a scathing editorial (“Ohio’s Hollow Boast”) calling out some unacceptably poor public outcomes in the state of Ohio. Among the datapoints it raised:

“Ohio offers families less financial assistance for child-care costs for infants to 5-year-olds than any state in the nation”

“Three of the top 10 job categories in Ohio pay less than 145 percent of the federal poverty level.”

The Blade then made the broader point that while Ohio leaders boast about economic numbers (thank you Joe Biden) and being a great place for families, in fact “the all but official Ohio boast is simply not true.”

I shared the editorial on social media, pointing out additional measurements of failure (falling school quality, high student debt burden, population loss, poor health outcomes, etc.) that underscore Ohio’s wrong direction.

And on this Labor Day, let me share some other data points (from Policy Matters Ohio) that are especially relevant to today:

Ohio’s median hourly wage in 2022 was lower than the national median by $1.37;

Back in 1979, Ohio’s median wage was $1.78 above the national average;

Why the fall? Because the median wage only increased 4%(!) between 1979 and 2021;

At the same time, Ohio workers’ Gross Domestic Product per worker increased by 76%. So workers are making a huge difference, producing substantially higher economic returns for their labor, but not being rewarded for it.

The response to my tweet about stats like these was immediate, although not exactly what I expected. People from across the country wrote that my list of poor outcomes perfectly described their states as well: Iowa. Florida. Texas. Tennessee. Indiana. Missouri. Residents from all these states chimed in.

And of course, you are ALL right.

Beginning with stagnant wages, outcomes are declining in so many of these places. Like here, schools are struggling. Health outcomes are not what they should be. Student debt keeps rising.

The struggle for working families is not an Ohio problem, although we Buckeyes too are suffering through it. It’s a national problem, and it’s occurring especially in highly gerrymandered states across the country.

And sadly, it will keep happening.

Why? Because all the incentives in these broken systems encourage it.

Declining public outcomes for working families and the broader public are the inevitable result of gerrymandered statehouses that have eliminated accountability for politicians and government. The lack of accountability back to the people corrupts the core mission of these legislatures in state after state.


It breeds an incentive structure that generates the opposite of public service. An inordinate amount of the politicians’ time is spent 1) transferring public goods and assets over to the private interests that now dominate/control state capitols, and 2) using public power to reward those private interests while holding down public outcomes (like wages). Government “policy” ceases to be about the public at all. It arises from the collective asks of private players—usually getting what they want at the expense of the public.

And while the gerrymandered politicians are rewarded by those interests for harnessing public assets and public power to satisfy those private wants, the people back home can’t do anything about it. Their “representatives” are walled off in their gerrymandered districts, protected from the people no matter how poor those “policies” actually are for the broader public.

So whether it’s stagnant wages or public school dollar giveaways or less safe communities, the cycle continues year after year: Private interests benefitting and sharing some of that benefit with the politicians. The public—and working families—paying the price, but unable to stop it.

And that explains why public outcomes keep falling, but why politicians keep doubling down on the very “policies” that drive those outcomes down. Their goal isn’t about lifting those outcomes to begin with — they are actually accomplishing their goal of keeping the private interests who support them both happy and generous. And all of that is what you get, inevitably, with a gerrymandered system.

Pretty gloomy picture, isn’t it?

But on this Labor Day, we have some good news:

First, there’s a resurgence of unions in this country. And few institutions wield a greater potential to break the cycle I describe above, and lift democracy, than institutions that organize Americans to band together and fiercely advocate for their economic and political interests, and improved public, common outcomes (wages, schools, health outcomes, etc.). Unions are among the final organizations remaining in America that are applying pressure upward—on behalf of the common good—against corrupted statehouse systems that are incentivized to push downward against the common good. So, as unions grow stronger, our democracy grows stronger.

Second, we are seeing a surge of pro-democracy efforts and victories across the country—folks growing increasingly aware of these broken, undemocratic systems, then rallying and fighting back. Where? Kansas. Wisconsin. Ohio. Last November, where we flipped statehouses and trounced election-denying Secretary of State candidates in every swing state in the nation.

Now, add these two pro-democracy trends together, and boy can you see results. In Ohio, the House of Labor was organized and unified from the outset to defeat Issue 1 here in August. They came together with the pro-democracy, multi-party partnership that also grew so strong over the course of the summer. And look what happened!

Labor Day provides an important moment to take stock in the price being paid by workers and working families from a broken and corrupted democracy.

But it also is a great day to remember that the collective power of unions and workers remains one of the most powerful forces in this country that will save our democracy.

Enjoy the day. Thank a union.

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