September 5th, 2016

union membership in the united states 1930-2010 labor day organized labor 160906

To be alive and working in the United States of America in the 1950’s was something of miracle. You were living in the world’s greatest nation and the booming middle class was fueling an economic expansion unlike any the nation had experienced and one in three workers was a member of a union. That number was multiplied by owners of non-unionized companies—like the one my father worked for—who knew that if they didn’t match union wages in their industry then they soon be dealing with a union shop themselves.

Thanks to union busting and terrible trade deals that shipped good-paying American jobs overseas where workers would toil for pennies on the dollar, only about one in 10 American workers are part of a union and the Middle Class built by organized labor is constantly shrinking.

Jon Schwarz, writing in Happy Labor Day! There Has Never Been a Middle Class Without Strong Unions for The Intercept explains:

The entire Republican Party and the ruling heights of the Democratic Party loathe unions. Yet they also claim they want to build a strong U.S. middle class.

This makes no sense. Wanting to build a middle class while hating unions is like wanting to build a house while hating hammers.

Sure, maybe hammers — like every tool humans have ever invented — aren’t 100 percent perfect. Maybe when you use a hammer you sometimes hit your thumb. But if you hate hammers and spend most of your time trying to destroy them, you’re never, ever going to build a house.

Likewise, no country on earth has ever created a strong middle class without strong unions. If you genuinely want the U.S. to have a strong middle class again, that means you want lots of people in lots of unions.

The bad news, of course, is that the U.S. is going in exactly the opposite direction. Union membership has collapsed in the past 40 years, falling from 24 percent to 11 percent. And even those numbers conceal the uglier reality that union membership is now 35 percent in the public sector but just 6.7 percent in the private sector. That private sector percentage is now lower than it’s been in over 100 years.

Not coincidentally, wealth inequality – which fell tremendously during the decades after World War II when the U.S. was most heavily unionized – has soared back to the levels seen 100 years ago.

Only the power of masses of people can defeat the power of masses of money.

In 1931 Florence Reece asked Which side are you on? Today, the question still stands.

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