Workers of the World Divide

The Decline of Labor and the Future of the Middle Class

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From a World War II-era poster created by the Office for Emergency Management and the War Production Board. (DonkeyHotey / flickr)

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

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