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Spring 2013

Organizing should be a civil right, economist says

by County and City Employee Writer on July 12, 2013

It’s a good time to rebuild the middle class, says John Burbank executive director of the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute.One way to achieve that, he says, is to strengthen unions.

Burbank, who spoke at Council 2’s Legislative Weekend, said that since 1980 workers’ productivity has risen, but wages and salaries have remained stagnant.

“What happened after 1980? Ronald Reagan became president and he busted patco, the air traffic controllers’ union, which was the signal that it was acceptable to bust unions,” Burbank told Council 2 members.

“Many workers lost their bargaining power, they lost the ability to grow their wages. Health care costs shifted to the employee.”

As corporate profits rose from $253 billion in 1981 to $1.8 trillion in 2010, average workers’ incomes rose from $39,000 to $41,000.

“There’s no excuse that wages need to be held down like this, but because workers have less bargaining power, we have this situation,” Burbank said.

Among the ways we can restore middle class prosperity, Burbank added, is to make union organizing a civil right.

“Discrimination on the basis of union activities should be illegal. Doing so would bring in the powers of the human rights commission and give workers a lot more protection. We want to be building an offense, not a defense.”

Public service and public servants need to be respected, Burbank said.

College tuition needs to be affordable again, he added, outlining a plan whereby students at colleges would “pay forward” their tuition.

Rather than being burdened with high debt on graduation (the average is $18,000), they would be given free education, but would pay the fees over the next 25 years into a trust fund at a rate of 1.5 percent for community colleges and 4 percent for universities such as the University of Washington.