Workers of the World Divide

The Decline of Labor and the Future of the Middle Class

Since the middle of the last century, the American labor movement has been in steady decline. In the early 1950s, around one-third of the United States' total labor force was unionized. Today, just one-tenth remains so. Unionization of the private sector is even lower, at five percent. Over the last few decades, unions' influence has waned and workers' collective voice in the political process has weakened. Partly as a result, wages have stagnated and income inequality has increased.

The decline of American unions was not preordained. The modern labor movement first emerged in response to the Great Depression, when fledgling workers' organizations and established unions led mass protests against unemployment and the failures of American capitalism. Tumultuous strikes rocked the heartland from the coalfields of Pennsylvania to the factories of Michigan. In those days, "anybody struck," as the labor historian Irving Bernstein once observed. "It was the fashion." In 1935, a key component of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the National Labor Relations Act, codified workers' rights to form and join unions.

As many workplaces unionized in the following years, labor leaders sought to establish themselves as responsible social and political partners. Indeed, when World War II came, they often chose to forgo strikes in the name of the war effort. Such moves sometimes proved unpopular with ordinary workers, but they helped win union leaders seats at the policymaking table and cemented their organizations' status as the largely uncontested representatives of the United States' industrial laborers. By 1954, more than 17 million American workers, around 35 percent of all wage and salary earners, were union members. In Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington, and West Virginia, unionization was 40 percent or higher. Even in the South, where the labor movement met the greatest resistance, union membership got as high as 20 percent of workers in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee. U.S. union members were disproportionately male blue-collar breadwinners working lifelong jobs in large firms. As organized labor helped secure the economic well-being of this group, the American middle class prospered and the country entered a golden age of income equality.

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