Summary: We take the growth of a prosperous middle class as the just due of Americans. In fact generations of union activism played the largest role in creating it, it existed for only a few generations, and now dies. On this Labor Day let’s revisit the lost history of the union movement, and consider lessons we can learn from it.
“To remember the loneliness, the fear and the insecurity of men who once had to walk alone in huge factories, beside huge machines. To realize that labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen. To be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father. To know these things is to understand what American labor means.”
— Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the American Federation of Labor in NYC on 22 Sept. 1952.
- The rise and Fall of America’s Middle Class.
- Throwing away what as gained over 150 years.
- For More Information.
- A note from our past.
(1) Rise & Fall of America’s Middle Class
Since 1990 wages are falling as a share of Gross Domestic Income (GDI); profits are rising. The reasons are complex, the result has by now become unmistakable: a shift of our national income from return on labor to return on capital. Since the nation’s wealth is so highly concentrated, the result is rising inequality of income.
Wages as a share of Gross Domestic Income: down and falling. The actual picture for workers is far worse than this, since these “wages” includes the vast sums paid to senior corporate managers — sums beyond anything seen until 1980s.
Profits as a share of Gross Domestic Income: the long drop reversed, like so many things, during the 1980s. Since then it’s been a holiday for plutocrats.
(2) Throwing away the gains from 150 years of struggle
The middle class was not a gift of the Blue Fairy. Instead of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” workers mobilizing against their employers — who in response organized cartels to fight their employees and raise prices for their customers. It took 150 years to build America’s middle class.
The victory of unions was foundational for the growth of America’s middle class. they provide a voice, political muscle, money for research and training people to counter the massive institutional power of corporations. The fall of the unions was a major factor undermining the middle class. It had many causes: corruption, greed, stupidity, infiltration by organized crime — and the long successful counter-revolution by corporations, now quickly eroding away the middle class.
Gains from generations of struggle lost carelessly in a generation. As a sign of their brazen return to power, mega-corps have re-instituted illegal wage cartels: such as those reveal among technology companies and entertainment companies — plus those we don’t know about (these are easy to hide if done informally). What will American look in another generation?
It was a long bloody struggle, For a blow-by-blow of unions rise see this series by Erik Loomis (Asst Prof of History, U RI). The toll these people paid is as much a cost of building America as that paid by the members of our armed forces.
- September 1739: The Stono Rebellion.
- July 1835: Paterson Textile Strike of 1835.
- February 1865: Sons of Vulcan win nation’s first union contract.
- August 1866: National Labor Union demands Congress implement the 8-hour day.
- June 1877: Molly Maguires executed in Pennsylvania.
- July 1877: The Great Railroad Strike.
- February 1864: Kate Mullaney and Collar Laundry Union go on strike in Troy, New York.
- September 1885: Rock Springs Massacre.
- May 1886: Haymarket Riot.
- December 1886: Creation of the Colored Farmers Alliance.
- February 1887: Grover Cleveland signs the Dawes Act.
- November 1887: Thibodaux Massacre.
- July 1892: People’s Party Convention.
- July 1892: The Homestead Strike.
- July 1892: Miners outside of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho blow up the Frisco Mill.
- February 1894: Cripple Creek gold miners strike.
- April 1894: Coxey’s Army.
- June 1894: Pullman Strike.
- May 1902: Anthracite coal miners strike in Pennsylvania begins, TR mediates.
- December 1905: Murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg.
- November 1909: Uprising of the 20,000.
- March 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
- May 1911: Wisconsin passes first workers compensation law.
- February 1912: Beating of the women and children at Lawrence, MA.
- June 1913: Paterson Silk Pageant. Addendum here.
- August 1913: Wheatland Riot.
- April 1914: Ludlow Massacre.
- November 1915: Joe Hill executed in Utah.
- November 1916: The Everett Massacre.
- July 1917: The Bisbee Deportation.
- August 1917: Frank Little lynched in Butte.
- February 1919: The Seattle General Strike.
- November 1919: The Centralia Massacre.
- May 1920: Matewan Massacre.
- August 1921: Battle of Blair Mountain.
- June 1922: Herrin Massacre.
- June 1925: Soldiers in Nova Scotia shoot and kill William Davis, a striking coal miner.
- August 1925: Founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
- August 1927: Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
- March 1932: River Rouge march and repression.
- May 1934: Longshoremen strike begins in San Francisco.
- May 1934: Minneapolis Teamsters Strike.
- November 1935: Creation of the CIO.
- February 1937: The Flint Sit-Down Strike ends.
- May 1937: Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago.
- January 1941: March on Washington Movement leads to end of official segregation in defense industry.
- June 1943: Detroit Hate Strike.
- July 1944: Port Chicago explosion.
- August 1945: Air Line Stewardesses Association, first flight attendant union, forms.
- September 1946: Tobacco workers win contract in North Carolina, starting CIO’s Operation Dixie campaign.
- December 1946: The Oakland General Strike.
- April 1952: Truman nationalizes steel industry — Workers wages cannot rise as fast as CEOs’.
- July 1959: Steelworkers Strike of 1959 begins.
- January 1962: President Kennedy issues Executive Order 10988, authorizing collective bargaining for public workers.
- April 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King during sanitation strike in Memphis.
- January 1970: Murder of UMWA reformer Jock Yablonski.
- July 1970: United Farm Workers force growers into the first union contract in the history of California agricultural labor.
- May 1937: Battle of the Overpass.
- March 1974: Coalition of Trade Union Women holds first meeting.
- March 1977: AFSCME goes on strike in Atlanta, crushed by mayor Maynard Jackson.
- August 1981: Air Traffic Controllers go on strike in biggest disaster in organized labor’s history.
- September 1989: The Pittston Strike.
- June 1990: Los Angeles police beat SEIU members in Justice for Janitors march.
(3) For More Information
Vital to remember: “The Myth of the Middle Class” by Alan Nasser (professor emeritus of political economy, Evergreen State College) at CounterPunch. Most Americans been poor since the 1% took control in the late 19th century, crushing the independent craftsmen and farmers with frequent and long depressions.
Also see “Bargaining for the American Dream; What Unions do for Mobility” by Richard Freeman et al at the Center for American Progress.
- The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society.
- Public employee unions – an anvil chained to the Democratic Party.
- Why the 1% is winning, and we are not — They are smart, organized, and have planned how to win.
- Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there,
- The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society,
- The voice of plutocrats yearning for dominance and control,
- Why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy. Nor could your daughter.,
(4) A note from our past