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.

But the decline of organized labor reduces the political power of average Americans in more ways than just an inability to combat corporate spending. Working-class voters, oppressed by non-participatory work environments and economic hardship, too often become disillusioned with a political system that does not work for them and, resigned to their lack of representation, disengage politically. The participatory work environments that unionized employees are more likely to experience help develop civic skills and a sense of political rights and power, while more authoritarian work environments discourage political activism by reinforcing class power relations. Union members are significantly more likely to vote than non-union members, and Roland Zullo, a labor relations professor at the University of Michigan, argues that unionization increases voter turnout even among non-union members. According to a Dollars & Sense report, turnout among the less wealthy dropped sharply between 1980 and 2000, a period of marked declines in union membership. Voter turnout fell by 9.4 percentage points in the bottom two income quintiles, while increasing 10.1 percentage points among the top three quintiles.

Even those who still wish to participate in the discussion of the policies affecting all Americans may find it difficult to do so. Inflexible work schedules, unreliable or nonexistent transportation methods and burdensome voter ID laws are all obstacles to voting that disproportionately affect working-class and low-income voters. The fewer support systems workers have, the harder it is for them to overcome these odds, leaving corporate America free to consolidate its grip on government.

Together these phenomena conspire to strengthen and institutionalize a political system that works primarily for the wealthy elite, leaving the majority nearly powerless. They form a self-amplifying feedback loop: the more the wealthy elite influence politics and institute their policies, the less confidence working-class voters have in the system and the less likely they are to vote, allowing the wealthy to accrue ever increasing power. Sadly, the further this goes, the harder it becomes to stop, let alone undo. Unions, the strongest weapon the working class has against the elite, already struggling, will only become weaker in this undemocratic environment.

Regaining the lost ground to establish a vibrant participatory democracy will require reuniting labor into a cohesive movement, unions’ allying with other progressive groups, and all progressives’ exploring new methods of organization that take advantage of advances in communication and information technology. Only by returning the tools of government to average Americans through adequate representation can we fix our broken politics. In a New York Times interview, Warren Buffet said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class that’s making war, and we’re winning.” It’s time we fight back.