On Labor Day remember those who worked and bled to create the middle class

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.

Union: bargain or beg


  1. The rise and Fall of America’s Middle Class.
  2. Throwing away what as gained over 150 years.
  3. For More Information.
  4. 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.

FRED: wages' share of gross domestic income

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.

FRED: profits' share of gross domestic income

(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.

Reform button

(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.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See these posts about the building of a New America on the ruins of the America-that-once-was…

  1. The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society.
  2. Public employee unions – an anvil chained to the Democratic Party.
  3. Why the 1% is winning, and we are not — They are smart, organized, and have planned how to win.
  4. Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there,
  5. The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society,
  6. The voice of plutocrats yearning for dominance and control,
  7. Why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy. Nor could your daughter.,

(4)  A note from our past

.Union poster



6 thoughts on “On Labor Day remember those who worked and bled to create the middle class”

  1. FM- How can we remember this if it is new information? I was never taught about this struggle despite going to very good public schools and a tier one university. The struggle was wiped out of the textbooks over the last 40 years in favor of the wisdom of the market and it’s guiding, benevolent, invisible hand. Just like the study of war, we have to collectively relearn not remember.


    1. Mike,

      I started writing these posts in 2003 as an investigation into our problems and exp,oration of possible oaths to reform — with a fixed optimism about our future.

      Twelve years later I have tentative partial answers to both questions, but no longer with such optimism. Time will tell.

  2. Given all the adverse factors, including racial and ethnic divisions, “pure” capitalist ideology (no pre-existing nobility), and a continent chock-full of resourses (to keep the idea of the American dream), maybe this was a credible effort.
    The ideological background had changed greatly. It’s hard to see a candidate like Adlai Stevenson making such a pro-labor speech. Candidate Walker has based his whole campaign around showing how bravely he beat down the teachers and nurses.
    I appreciate your list of labor struggles. I knew several people involved with the last of these, the JFJ movement in LA (has it really been 25 yrs?).

  3. Thankful for such a Post.
    As Mike says he recalls never being informed of the Labor Struggle in the US. I’m not sure I was exposed to these events and trends either in secondary school. Yet as a multi generational Coloradoan, we all knew about the Ludlow Massacre in So Colorado at the CF and I mine (and the Sandcreek Massacre, east of Denver, many years earlier). We all knew that the Rockefeller’s owned most of the major mines in CO at that time. Somehow I recall hearing as a youngster of the Ford Hunger Massacre, too. There were tidbits of this history of what Labor Unions had accomplished for the USA in the mainstream meme. Today many PBS series will highlight these struggles from the early 1900’s forward. The news is out there. When you discover the underlying myths of the American Dream propagated for the unwary, you may begin seeking historical sources, like Howard Zinn or David Halberstam. And thus begin re-educating your self.
    Of course it is not unusual today to listen as people still disparage the Labor Movement and Unions (and deny the Sandcreek Massacre!); most of it arises from the middle classes themselves who most decidedly wish they were a wee more wealthy than they are! Identifying with the plutocrats seems to suffice these days as a substitute for real Opportunity.
    A grand Holiday!
    It’s not intended to be Fun, that’s why it’s called “Work”!


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