What is the Correlation Between the Rise and Fall of Unions and the Middle Class of the United States and What Benefits Does a Strong Middle Class Do For Workers and Worker Safety in the United States?
An essay by Emily Woitas
Union strength is more than a correlation: it is the cause of the rise of the middle class in America. The graph below, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that as workers endured the Great Depression, they organized to strengthen their bargaining position in the workplace. As America emerged from World War II, unionized workers were between 25% and 35% of the workforce. This strength directly created the middle class.
The 50's, 60's, and 70's were a period of unparalleled growth of the middle class: home ownership soared, while health benefits, worker sick leave and retirement plans all expanded. The middle class was thriving! In 1981, disaster struck. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike to improve their horrendous working conditions. Wages weren't an issue; they felt they were fairly paid, yet the stress of the job and the infrequent breaks were intolerable. These workers felt they were under too much pressure to guarantee the safety of the flying public.
Economists and political commentators all agree that the US economy has stagnated and the middle class has eroded over the last 35 years. I assert that this is due to the fact that union membership and strength has dropped below the critical mass of about 25% of the workforce. It is not a coincidence that this began in the early 80's. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the continued decline of Union membership: "The number of employed union members has declined by 2.9 million since 1983. During the same time, the number of all wage and salary workers grew from 88.3 million to 133.7 million. Consequently, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent in 1983 and declined to 11.1 percent in 2015" (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016, p. 2, para. 1).
In the Pew Research graph above, the effects of the government's betrayal of the union movement and the resultant erosion of the middle class is illustrated. The lower yellow line represents the wages workers actually earned. The upper green line adjusts those earnings for inflation (the reduced purchasing power of each dollar). As you can see, real earnings increased about 10% from 1964 to 1972, but the 1974 and 1979 recessions erased those gains. Since the disastrous events of 1981, there have been NO gains in real earning power for most workers.
Mccartin, J. A. (2011, August 02). The Strike That Busted Unions. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/03/opinion/reagan-vs-patco-the-strike-that-busted-unions.html