Union members and supporters protest Governor Rick Snyder’s “Right to Work” laws in East Lansing, Michigan in December 2012. (Reuters/Rebecca Cook)
Writing Contest Finalist
We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here. —The Editor
The 2011 protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, which gutted the collective bargaining rights of most public employees, were my first direct experience with democracy. It was exciting and memorable—and not just because I didn’t have to go to school for several days. I felt empowered, connected to the community, and truly hopeful. For the first time, it seemed, people were actually fighting for the rights of working-class families. But the bill passed, Scott Walker won the recall and the senatorial recalls failed to produce a Democratic majority, despite Democrats’ gaining two seats. Almost everyone in my hometown of Madison was dejected. How did we lose?
The answer, I’ve found, lies deeper than being outspent through out-of-state donations. Deunionization has yielded a disorganized and disempowered working class coupled with high wealth and income inequality. The result is a dangerous political imbalance where the wealthy hold too much leverage and few fight for the interests of the average American. A vicious cycle of voter disengagement, obstacles to participation and an unchallenged takeover by moneyed interests drives this imbalance further. That brief feeling of power and engagement I felt in 2011 is, sadly, the exception to the rule.
The decline of unions over the past forty to fifty years resulted from diverse factors including globalization, technological changes, industry deregulation and concerted attacks on union rights by corporate interests and conservative politicians. Over this same time period, inequality has risen dramatically with the top 1 percent of Americans receiving an ever-increasing share of the national income. Despite a 75 percent increase in productivity between 1980 and 2008, workers’ average wages increased only 22.6 percent, whereas up until the mid-70s workers’ income rose in line with their increasing productivity. Professors of sociology at Harvard and the University of Washington, respectively, Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld analyzed the growth in inequality in the private sector from 1973 to 2007. They argue that deunionization accounts for a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality. This discrepancy in wealth translates to an imbalance in political influence, recently exacerbated by the Citizens United ruling.