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November 15, 2008 - Ray Hall (Archive)
The rise of America’s middle class can be tied directly to the rise of organized labor—the trade union movement in the private sector. Despite setbacks, the union movement persevered by continuing the struggle for improved wages and working conditions and for the first time in history created a vibrant and an empowered middle class in America.

A robust union movement has demonstrated that it is good for America, but unionists in the United States have never had it easy—America’s union movement has been marked by trial and bloody strife. Organizers have always encountered employer opposition—sometimes-violent opposition like the 1886 Haymarket Tragedy in Chicago, but today organized labor is facing its greatest challenge.

Despite remarkable success in organizing service workers and public sector employees organized labor has fallen on hard times in the private sector and those hard times continue to shrink our middle class. Union membership in the private sector reached its peak in 1953 when nearly 36% of the nation’s workforce were members of a union. After 1953 private sector union membership began a gradual but inexorable decline.

As union membership shrunk so did real wages. Despite gasoline lines and run away inflation during the Carter years real weekly wages amounted to $315.00 for the typical working family. Ten years later, at the end of 1984 that weekly wage stood at $280.00 for the typical working family. To maintain a standard of living to which working families had become accustomed and to counter shrinking wages more family members entered the part-time workforce and primary bread winners took second and third jobs. It was, however, during the Reagan years when organized labor came under a full frontal assault from the chieftains of capitalism and private sector union membership experienced its greatest decline.

Fueled by emerging conservative “think-tanks” organized labor was seen as an impediment to free markets and “trickle down” economics as advanced by the Reagan Administration. Companies were given the green light to scrap union contracts using bankruptcy laws and were permitted to deliberately under fund pension plans. When President Reagan took office in 1980 union workers comprised 21% of the private sector workforce and by the end of Bush 41 union membership in the private sector had dropped to slightly more than 9%, or by more than half.

Today, union membership in the private sector comprises less than 8% of our national workforce. Organized labor has always had its detractors, but today the foes of organized labor are poised to deliver the final coup de grace to the wounded remains of one of labors most successful symbols, the American auto worker.

As ordinary citizens pay for the excesses of Greed Street our automobile industry is teetering on financial ruin and bankruptcy. The motor companies are asking for another $25 billion cash infusion from the government—from us, you and me. That request has set off howls of protest from the same people—the people that got us—you and me—in this awful financial mess in first place; the same people that just got nearly a trillion dollars to pay even higher penthouse salaries and unimaginable bonuses for incompetent failures.

Do not fault General Motor’s management is the cry from the Greed Street crowd, “the problem with General Motors is their union contracts,” howls Mad Money’s Jim Cramer, but his is not the lone voice. Greed Street mavens and the tattered remains of the Republican Party seem willing—even eager—to allow our motor car companies to go belly up—bankrupt, but not AIG America’s largest insurer of goofy mortgages. Forget the loss of 3 or 4 million jobs as the shutdown surges across our economy landscape—the unions will be gone and the motor car companies will emerge free from the restraints of health insurance and pension costs.

After all, the Greed Street crowd has been rewarded handsomely for their financial gluttony, but 3 or 4 million workers connected to the auto industry will be thrown to the wolves, and that’s okay with the anti-labor crowd. Greed Street and the Republican Party has always led the fight against minimum wage increases, national health insurance and labor unions, but remarkably and despite glitches and flaws, it has been the labor movement that has improved the lot of ordinary workers.


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