China has a problem: rising inequality. The gap between profits and wages is soaring. Although elements of the government have sought to boost workers’ incomes, they have been thwarted by major companies and banks “that don’t want to give more profit to the country and let the government distribute it,” Qi Jingmei, a research fellow for a government think tank, told the Wall Street Journal.
Of course, if China permitted the establishment of unions, wages would rise. But for fundamentally political reasons — independent unions would undermine the Communist Party’s authority — unions are out of the question.
Meanwhile, the United States also has a problem of a rising gap between profits and wages. The stagnation of wages has become an accepted fact across the political spectrum; conservative columnists such as Michael Gerson and David Brooks have acknowledged that workers’ incomes seem to be stuck.
What conservatives haven’t acknowledged, and what even most liberal commentators fail to appreciate, is how central the collapse of collective bargaining is to American workers’ inability to win themselves a raise. Yes, globalizing and mechanizing jobs has cut into the livelihoods of millions of U.S. workers, but that is far from the whole story. Roughly 100 million of the nation’s 143 million employed workers have jobs that can’t be shipped abroad, that aren’t in competition with steel workers in Sao Paulo or iPod assemblers in Shenzhen. Sales clerks, waiters, librarians and carpenters all utilize technology in their jobs, but not to the point that they’ve become dispensable.