When Barack Obama tonight trumpets the Democrats' plan to build an economy from "the middle out" rather than the top down, I'll be curious to see how forthright he is - or isn't - about what should be a key part of that strategy.
While the Democrats hold their convention in a "right to work" state, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute points out a perilous trend: The decline of the middle class parallels the decline in unionization.
The report's title - "Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages" - says it all. The problem is that few others are saying it, with unions forced into a low-key role at the convention despite being part of the party's backbone.
Given the antipathy Republicans have generated among workers who should know better, don't be surprised if this confrontation-averse president barely mentions the word "union." But if he's really serious about boosting stagnant wages, safeguarding pensions and rebuilding the middle class, he'll give more than a nod to the need to organize.
As welcome relief to the lies of this campaign, the EPI report uses hard numbers. Looking at data from 1973 to 2011, it ties workers' "lost decade" of the 2000s in no small measure to the "ongoing erosion of unionization." Controlling for experience, education and similar factors, EPI found a "union wage premium" of 13.6 percent in 2011. That is, workers covered by collective-bargaining agreements made 13.6 percent more than comparable workers not in unions. Who wouldn't want a 13.6 percent raise?
Similarly, the analysis found that union workers are 28 percent more likely to have health coverage on the job and nearly 54 percent more likely to have pensions. And, not surprisingly, the report found that the wage premium has declined over the last three decades as union membership has declined, both nationally and locally.
According to the website Unionstats, unionization in Buffalo Niagara has dropped from about 34 percent in 1986 to 27 percent in 2011. And only about 18 percent of private-sector workers here are unionized. While that's still more than double the national average, it pales next to the roughly 79 percent rate among the region's public employees.
Such disparities are why Republicans try to divide Americans, playing the envy card by going after unions to make non-union workers envious.
"Instead of saying we need to drag union workers down, . let's expand the conversation and say, 'How can we bring your wages up?'?" countered Franchelle Hart, communications coordinator for Local 1199, Service Employees International Union.
It's a timely question, as corporate profits rebound while businesses sit on dollars instead of hiring; as productivity soars while workers take on the jobs of their laid-off colleagues; and as inequality skyrockets.
It's the question Obama should relish answering, even in union-unfriendly North Carolina, rather than let the GOP make unions, in Hart's words, "the newest thing to attack." If he really wants to restore America's middle class, the EPI data makes clear he needs to talk not just about "workers," but about unions.
And let's face it: He couldn't have a more perfect foil than Mitt Romney, the 2012 version of Snidely Whiplash.