10 Ways to Make the Economy Work for the Many, Not the Few: #7, Strengthen Unions and Preempt State 'Right-to-Work' Laws

05/28/2015 11:23 am ET | Updated May 28, 2016

One big reason America was far more equal in the 1950s and 1960s than now is unions were stronger then. That gave workers bargaining power to get a fair share of the economy's gains -- and unions helped improve wages and working conditions for everyone.

But as union membership has weakened -- from more than a third of all private-sector workers belonging unions in the 1950s to fewer than 7 percent today -- the bargaining power of average workers has all but disappeared.

In fact, the decline of the American middle class mirrors almost exactly the decline of American labor union membership.

So how do we strengthen unions?

First, make it easier to form a union, with a simple majority of workers voting up or down.

Right now, long delays and procedural hurdles give big employers plenty of time to whip up campaigns against unions, even threatening they'll close down and move somewhere else if a union is voted in.

Second, build in real penalties on companies that violate labor laws by firing workers who try to organize a union or intimidating others.

These moves are illegal, but nowadays the worst that can happen is employers get slapped on the wrist. If found guilty they have to repay lost wages to the workers they fire. Some employers treat this as a cost of doing business. That must be stopped. Penalties should be large enough to stop this illegality.

Finally - this one has been in the news lately, and if you only remember one thing, remember this: We must enact a federal law that pre-empts so-called state "right-to-work" laws.

Don't be fooled by the "right to work" name. These laws allow workers to get all the benefits of having a union without paying union dues. It's a back door destroying unions. If no one pays dues, unions have no way to provide any union benefits. And that means lower wages.

In fact, wages in right-to-work states are lower on average than wages in non-right-to-work states, by an average of about $1500 a year. Workers in right-to-work states are also less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance and pension coverage.

When unions are weakened by right-to-work laws, all of a state's workers are hurt.

American workers need a union to bargain on their behalf. Low-wage workers in big-box retail stores and fast-food chains need a union even more.

If we want average Americans to get a fair share of the gains from economic growth, they need to be able to unionize.

ROBERT B. REICH's film "Inequality for All" is now available on DVD and blu-ray, and on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: