TO REDUCE growing income inequality, the usually thoughtful Edward L. Glaeser falls back on a panacea of today’s corporate culture: “ensure that everyone has the skills needed to succeed in the information age.’’ Individuals who acquire profitable skills may gain social mobility, but income inequality will continue to grow. Not all work is done by computer programmers. Some of the most needed and fastest-growing occupations, such as home health aides and food handlers, are poorly paid and lacking in basic benefits.
Why was equality on the rise from 1940 to 1975? Why is it now in drastic decline? The most important difference between now and then was that we valued the hard work and essential contributions of people with all types of skills. The postwar social contract was based on paying wages and benefits that would allow people to live and retire with dignity and raise a family in security.
And what was the power that established and enforced that contract? Labor unions, with more than a third of all workers as members. Until employers are again compelled to raise the floor for less educated, yet essential, workers, we will continue to take the low road to another gilded age.
The writer is Massachusetts political director for the Service Employees International Union.