March 6, 2009 Volume 110 Number 5

Economist tells Bricklayers Union growing labor will boost economy

Unions helped create America’s middle-class, and unions will have to help America get out of one of the worst recessions in a generation, says economics professor Richard A. Levines.

Levines is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Minnesota and author of Middle Class: Union Made. He was the keynote speaker at the Feb. 21 pin awards and apprentice recognition dinner hosted by Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1.

“Middle class economies don’t just happen. They are made,” Levines said. “Our middle class economy wasn’t built on cheap wages. Building unions is an important part of any policy that will have a permanent, positive effect on our economy.”

For too long, Levines said, so-called “experts” have been advising more borrowing, more tax cuts, and encouraging people to spend what they have.

“The experts are talking about every solution except the only one that makes any sense: Higher wages,” he said.

The way to accomplish that, Levines believes, is by growing the labor movement. He said history shows that when unions have been strong, the middle class has been strong, and when unions have been weak, the middle class has been weak.

“This is no coincidence,” he said. “If money goes to people who will spend it, the economy grows.”

Levines said the only people who have benefited from the anti-union economic policies of the last eight years are people so rich they can’t possibly spend their money in ways that stimulate economic growth.

“How many homes, cars and boats can you have? The super rich are hoarding money,” he said.

Conversely, since 1980, real wages for rank-and-file workers have not kept pace with productivity. “We’re working more and getting less,” he said, noting that from 2003 to 2007 inflation-adjusted hourly wages for rank-and-file workers rose just a penny.

“Yet there are still people trying to stimulate the economy by lowering wages and laying people off. This doesn’t make any sense at all,” Levines said.

Levines says there are only a couple of ways to get money back into circulation. One is to raise taxes; the other — better way — is to increase workers’ wages.

“Unions can help do that,” he said. “You’ve done it in the past, and you’re going to do it again.”

“Our economic problems will not somehow magically fix themselves,” he continued. “They can be fixed, but only through the power of middle class people working together toward the right goals.”

Levines said it appears organized labor has helped elect politicians and a president that favor unions and the middle class. “But there’s no way any president is going to do the job that unions have to do.”

“You’ve got a strong story. You’ve got the right story. You’re doing the right thing,” he said. “It’s about wages, its about keeping that share of that productivity in the hands of people who can spend it, so we can have a growing economy.”

(Editor’s Note: Middle Class: Union Made can be purchased in bulk order by labor unions and civic organizations. For more information, call 1-877-628-6233 or go to

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