Remember the union workers who bled to create America

Summary: We regard a prosperous middle class as our just due. In fact generations of union activists played a larger role in creating it. It existed for only a few generations, and survived the crushing of unions by a few decades. On Labor Day let’s remember the lost history of the union movement, and learn from it — to do better in the future.

Union: bargain or beg



  1. The rise and fall of unions.
  2. The rise of America’s middle class.
  3. Throwing away what as gained over 110 years.
  4. For More Information.
  5. How to destroy unions.


(1) The rise and fall of unions.

In the mid-1970s Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations was a key part of the labor movement. Its graduates were among the vanguard of the labor movement — to continue progress that over the previous 110 years had played a large role in building America’s large middle class. The ones I knew were idealistic, hard-working, and confident they were on the winning side (it was the 1970s).

Its graduates were trained in the social sciences (including political sciences) and business. They did not know they should have been studying strategy and tactics from the West Point curriculum. Corporate leaders had decided to roll back the New Deal, and breaking unions was a key art of that. War, of a sorts, had been declared — undeclared, lavishly financed by patient capital, executed by talented people.

Forty years later the union movement is broken, with the last bastions — such as government employees —  now under attack.

What labor unions brought us

(2)  The rise of America’s middle class.

“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 middle class was not a gift to us from the Blue Fairy. Instead of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”, workers mobilize against their employers.  It took generations after the Civil War to build America’s middle class, and unions were a large factor making it happen. They provided organization, political muscle, money for research and training people to counter the massive institutional power of corporations.

In response corporations organized cartels to fight their workers and raise prices for their customers.

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 paid by union members — in time, work, and often blood — is as much a cost of building America as that paid by the members of our armed forces.

Struggles during the long decline.

Union poster

(3) Throwing away the gains from 110 years of struggle.

Gains from generations of struggle were lost carelessly in a generation. Many unions were internally weaker than they looked at their peak, with widespread corruption, stupid and greedy leaders, and infiltrated by organized crime. This made the successful counter-revolution by corporations much easier.

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 America look after another generation of corporate attacks on workers?

The fall of unions was a major factor undermining the middle class.

Since 1970 wages have been falling as a share of Gross Domestic Income (GDI); since 1990 profits are rising. See the graphs below. 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.

The actual decline of workers’ pay is worse than shown in this graph, since these “wages” include 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 fell for generations. The long drop reversed, like so many things, during the 1980s. Since then every day is Christmas for plutocrats.

FRED - GDI share of corporate profits

Reform button

(4)  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 have 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 all posts about unions, and especially these posts about the building of a New America on the ruins of the America-that-once-was…

  1. Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there,
  2. The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society.
  3. Public employee unions – an anvil chained to the Democratic Party.
  4. Why the 1% is winning, and we are not — They are smart, organized, and have planned how to win.
  5. Before your celebrate Labor Day, look at the reality of America’s workers.
  6. Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment.
Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism
Aailable at Amazon.

(5)  How to destroy unions.

Review from the publisher.

Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism highlights the tenacious efforts by employers to organize themselves as a class to contest labor. Ranging across a spectrum of understudied issues, essayists explore employer anti-labor strategies and offer incisive portraits of people and organizations that aggressively opposed unions. Other contributors examine the anti-labor movement against a backdrop of larger forces, such as the intersection of race and ethnicity with anti-labor activity, and anti-unionism in the context of neoliberalism.

“A timely and revealing collection, Against Labor deepens our understanding of management history and employer activism and their metamorphic effects on workplace and society. …

“The decline of organized labor in recent decades is often attributed to globalization, financialization, and right-wing politics. But the compelling essays in this important volume show that the limits to workers’ collective power stem more basically from the concerted anti-union efforts of their employers dating back to the nineteenth century. Chronicling how capitalists have effectively forged a class-conscious social movement ‘against labor,’ these critical case studies make a vital contribution to the history of capitalism while illuminating the challenges facing workers today.”

— By Jeffrey Sklansk, author of The Soul’s Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920.


9 thoughts on “Remember the union workers who bled to create America”

  1. Typo: “Most Americans been poor ” should be “Most Americans have been poor.”

    The worst part of the fall of labor is that the business owners seem to fail to recognize that they are breaking the source of their own prosperity. Paying higher wages means that workers can buy more goods and services. Business owners have been surprised by the relative asceticism of the Millennial generation compared to the Baby Boomers but it simply comes down to the fact the Millennials have calmly assessed the situation and compensated for it by buying less.

    The key successes of the labor movement came during times of low immigration or high demand for labor (WWI and WWII for example). Businesses currently have a large supply of immigrant labor, a large supply of people who have exited the work force but could theoretically re-enter it, and increasing automation. All of the above leads me to argue that efforts at reform based solely on labor-as-production movements are not likely to succeed in the long run.

    But workers/consumers have a key advantage, businesses can only generate profits if they serve the needs of their customers. Falling consumer buying power forces businesses to lower their prices, which lowers profits and can even force businesses into bankruptcy. Movements that combine purchasing power and control of labor output have a vastly greater chance of success than movements that seek power solely by reducing manual production output.

    Striking some new balance between business owners and labor/consumers is vital to the future success of the country but it will not be easy. See the article below which shows very clearly why factory owners are being forced to use robots. WaPo: “Rise of the machines“, 5 August 2017.

    1. Pluto,

      “successes of the labor movement came during times of low immigration”

      The obvious but unspeakable truth about not just labor unions but also about the growth of the American middle class. Intense propaganda masks their truth from American’s eyes.

      “Paying higher wages means that workers can buy more goods and services.”

      Economists have long understood these kinds of paradoxes, where behavior that works for the individuals fails when adopted on a society-wide level. The best known is the “paradox of thrift” — high savings levels works for thee, but not for we (this can be compensated for by actions of the other two sectors, businesses and govt, as done in the East Asian nations).

      “but it will not be easy.”

      Yes. And no. It will require that we adopt a different perspective on America. More like what we had during the New Deal and WWII era. A change of mind is easy mechanically, but difficult to achieve.

      1. Pluto,

        Follow-up note: like most aspects of the automation challenge, this paradox has long been known (and ignored). As in this passage from a speech by Walter Reuther (the great UAW leader) in November 1956 to a Council group of the National Education Association. It’s from his Selected papers (1961).

        “I went through this Ford engine plant about three years ago, when they first opened it. There are acres and acres of machines, and here and there you will find a worker standing at a master switchboard, just watching, green and yellow lights blinking off and on, which tell the worker what is happening in the machine. One of the management people, with a slightly gleeful tone in his voice said to me, ‘How are you going to collect union dues from all these machines?’ And I replied, “You know, that is not what’s bothering me. I’m troubled by the problem of how to sell automobiles to these machines.”

    2. Another consequence of the destruction of organized labor: the gateway to even a humble middle-class existence is behind university doors. Another reason Millennials (and to a lesser extent Gen X) are thriftier than Boomers is because many of us are groaning under student debt, no thanks to the privatization of Sallie Mae and the increasingly predatory behavior of educational lenders. I wonder how long before it becomes a new debt crisis.

      1. ch1kpee,

        “the gateway to even a humble middle-class existence is behind university doors.”

        In California almost every non-manual job requires at least an AA, most a BA. And Silicon Valley firms often have job descriptions that say in various ways “only degrees from elite colleges” accepted.

  2. What really scares is me is how we came close, yet ultimately failed miserably to solve the human problems of this industrial revolution…while another even more disruptive one looms on the distance.

  3. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/09/10) - Social Matter

  4. Pingback: Unions die. America runs out of fuel. - Ryan Guillory

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