Network Call: Building Alliances with Labor with Mike Wilson
Our networking calls provide an informal way for Fellows and their colleagues to connect with each other on topics that directly inform their work. We'll provide information about those participating in the call ahead of time. We use WebEx Meeting Center, so participants have a chance to network face-to-face using their webcams (optional). This presentation will also include slides, which will only be visible to participants logged in on the WebEx interface. Call times are listed in the Eastern time zone.
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Income inequality has increased in many industrialized countries, but it has become especially pronounced in the United States. In the first three decades after World War II, real compensation (wages and benefits) moved roughly in tandem across all sectors of the American economy; since 1979, however, the U.S. has experienced a striking increase in income inequality (Figure 1). During this period, over 15% of national aggregate income shifted from the bottom 90% of the income distribution to the top 10%, and the share of workers who belonged to labor unions dropped from 35% to 10% today, representing about 14.5 million workers.
Figure 1. Real family income between 1946 and 2015 as a percentage of the 1973 level.1
As a consequence of income insecurity and other factors, 44% of U.S. children under age 18 now live in low-income households, defined as 200% of the federal poverty threshold; one in five children (20%) live at or below the federal poverty threshold.2 While about 30% of white and Asian children live in low-income families, about twice that percentage (63%) of Black, American Indian and Hispanic children live in low-income families.
As more and more people feel the bottom falling out of their lives, they are unable or unwilling to give attention to questions of environmental or even public health. Defending labor rights is thus a core environmental issue. At the same time, unions can sometimes be difficult to work with, their positions can be contrary to environmental progress, and their positions can sometimes change with little notice. Only about 7% of workers in the private sector are unionized, and the strain of keeping a union intact can be relentless. And yet, unions still represent millions of Americans. They represent the largest, most powerful movement for social justice and civil rights in the country.
On this call, Fellow Mike Wilson will give an introduction to the U.S. labor movement, and will describe his more than two decades of experience as a rank-and-file EMS union organizer, field staffer, and firefighter union president. He’ll talk about the challenges and limitations of working with unions and the power that strong relationships with labor can bring to environmental struggles.
Mike is director for occupational and environmental health at the BlueGreen Alliance, a national coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations that works to reduce carbon emissions, protect the safety and economic security of workers, and open new opportunities for good jobs in a clean economy. He previously served as chief scientist at the California Department of Industrial Relations and as director of the UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program. He earned his Ph.D (2003) and Master of Public Health (1998) in Environmental Health Sciences from UC Berkeley. He is a graduate of the Harvard Trade Union Program (1994).
 Stone, Trisi, Sherman & Horton (November 2016). A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [Available: http://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/11-28-11pov_1.pdf] (Accessed February 9, 2017). (p. 9)
 Jiang, Ekono, Skinner (February 2016). Basic Facts About Low Income Children. Children under 18 years, 2014. Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health, National Center for Children in Poverty [Available: http://www.nccp.org/