US court ruling issues blow to equality

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 30, 2018
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The United States Supreme Court [Photo/Xinhua]

The United States Supreme Court issued a decision on June 27 which threatens to increase econom-ic inequality even further at a time when inequality is becoming a threat to the health of American democracy. 

The case, Janus v. AFSCME, pitted a worker, Mark Janus, against the union that represented em-ployees of the Illinois state government's healthcare agency, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Janus's lawyers argued it was an affront to his right to free speech to have to pay union dues because the union also engages in politics, spending money to support and oppose candidates for office. Having to pay dues meant he had to support certain po-litical candidates whether he wanted to or not.

AFSCME has, since 2010, given almost all of its political contributions, more than $12 million, to Democrats. For other unions, it is much the same. There is a good reason for that: Democrats gen-erally favor expansive union rights, and Republicans generally oppose union rights. 

Unions exist to look after the economic self-interest of their members, so it makes sense for unions to support those candidates for public office who will support their interests. Politicians make laws that impact workers and unions directly, governing, for example, the requirements for union elec-tions and protections for employees. This is even more significant in the case of public sector un-ions like AFSCME, which negotiate on behalf of government employees.

Union membership for employees in private sector companies has declined dramatically as laws have chipped away at union rights. From 17 percent of all private sector employees in 1983, the rate of unionization has dropped to 7 percent by 2017, according to a Bloomberg report. Public sec-tor unionization rates, however, have remained stable, at around 35 percent during that time. The Janus ruling could change that, killing off the last bastion of unionization in America.

That could cause America's already high rate of inequality to rise further. The Gini coefficient in the United States, at about 0.486, according to the OECD, is higher than that of Canada or the Unit-ed Kingdom and above the 0.4 level that the United Nations considers dangerous. Though measures of Gini vary based on what metrics are used (and some put the U.S. even higher), what is relatively consistent is that inequality is rising in the country based on any measurement used. The U.S. Cen-sus shows that the Gini coefficient rose from 0.397 in 1967 to 0.480 in 2014. The last time Ameri-ca's inequality approached these levels was in the run up to the Great Depression.

Now with fewer workers contributing to unions, it is predictable that inequality will rise where un-ions lose power. What has happened to private sector unions will happen to public sector unions. A test case exists in the example of so-called "Right to Work" laws (RTW), which allow workers to belong to a union without contributing dues. The Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank, estimates that in those states with RTW in practice, wages for all workers (union and non-union) declined by $1,500 a year, non-wage benefits declined, and consumer spending declined. Con-servative opponents of unions implicitly acknowledge unions increase wages when they argue that unions cause companies to be uncompetitive by pushing up wages.

If Occam's Razor wasn't enough to prove that fewer workers will contribute union dues if given the opportunity to take advantage of union benefits for free, William J. Moore actually conducted research to prove just that in 1988. Unions still have to negotiate contracts for every employee and take up grievances should any worker be injured on the job, but they will have fewer resources to conduct those operations.

Rising inequality could have graver consequences than even merely unfairness. The grievances created by rising inequality threaten the health and existence of American democracy itself. Econ-omists and political scientists are not entirely in consensus on this, but there is enough agreement to at least be concerned.

Most mainstream theories of democratization posit that a functioning democracy stems from, or at least requires as a precondition, a large middle class. Ronald Inglehart holds that a middle class eventually begins to demand higher ideals once its survival needs have been met. Barrington Moore held to a class-based theory wherein societies with a capitalist middle class majority became de-mocracies, while aristocracy-dominated societies tended towards fascism.

If citizens vote based on their economic self-interest, a society where the lower class is large will produce a large demand for redistribution. The upper class, however, will oppose redistribution, and oppose it more forcefully; the larger the lower class is, thus the more expensive the cost is to them.

Ben W. Ansell and David J. Samuels summarize the theory as such: "[A]s inequality continues to increase, so do the costs of democracy to the elite. Although the rich prefer to pay nothing, when inequality is low relinquishing control over the tax rate imposes a relatively low cost. But when ine-quality is high, taxes under democracy are likely to be high, giving elites powerful incentives to op-pose regime change."

In a case with a large lower class whose desires for redistribution are not being met, the lower class might engage in a revolution. However, if the upper class feels there is too much redistribution and feels the costs of redistribution in a democracy are greater than the costs of a coup, then there will be a coup or the installation of a fascist in office. Under the current American administration, redis-tributive policies have been declining, while inequality has risen and the wealthy have enjoyed tax cuts.

It is worth noting that Ansell and Samuels do not actually agree with the theory that income inequal-ity is a threat to modern-day urbanized service-based economies. According to their research, rural inequality of land is a threat to democracy, but not inequality of wealth.

Americans should hope they are right.

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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