The fact that middle class living standards have been falling for decades is no secret. One way to put this in sharp relief, however, is through international comparisons. Alexander Eichler at the Huffington Post reports today that Caterpillar Inc. is demanding that its locomotive manufacturing workers in Canada take a 50% pay cut to bring them more in line with what its workers in Illinois make.
How is it that the Canadian Caterpillar workers get more than twice as much in wages and benefits as their Illinois counterparts when income per capita is lower in Canada than in the U.S.? According to the 2009 UN Human Development Report (Table M, p. 195), gross domestic product per capita in the U.S. in 2007 was $45,592 but only $40,329* in Canada. The first part of the answer is inequality. The same table shows that the U.S. has a Gini coefficient (an inequality measure in which 0 equals complete equality, and 100 when one person has all the income) of 40.8, compared with Canada's 32.6. The richest 10% of Americans make 15.9 times as much as the poorest 10%, while the figure in Canada is only 9.4 times as much.
The second part of the answer is unionization and union strength. As I noted in September, the U.S. has the fifth-lowest unionization rate of the 34 industrialized democracies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Only 11.4% of the American workforce is organized, compared with 27.5% in Canada.
As Eichler points out, a third reason wages are often higher in Canada is that its unemployment rate is lower than the U.S. rate, 7.5% vs. 8.5%. Higher unemployment means lower bargaining power for workers.
Caterpillar is not an isolated example. As I discussed in September, Electrolux actually moved from the Montreal suburbs to Memphis, saving over $4 per hour by ditching its unionized workforce for right-to-work Tennessee, and getting a free factory in the bargain.
This comparison with Canada helps us see, from another angle, just how much pressure the middle class is under in this country. The fact that Canada is very similar to the U.S. economically suggests that it is not impossible to strengthen the union movement and hence, the middle class, here.
* Technical note: The comparison of GDP per capita is not adjusted for purchasing power parity. Companies have to pay their workers in actual U.S. dollars or Canadian dollars, so the adjustment is not appropriate for this comparison.