Labor Day 2013 marked one of the lowest points in union membership since the U.S. labor movement began in the 19th century. Resurgence is overdue. History offers hope.
The election of 1896 at the height of the Gilded Age saw pro-business President Grover Cleveland seeking another term. But he had a public relations problem — hostility to struggling workers. He deployed 10,000 armed troops to bust the Chicago railroad workers strike of 1894, during which 12 people died protesting reductions in wages.
Cleveland offered angry workers an olive branch — a day off. The holiday endured. But Cleveland didn’t. His own party dumped him from the ticket.
Since then, union membership rose and fell. As membership has fallen, so have the fortunes of the middle class, according to “The Great Divergence” by journalist Timothy Noah. The decline in union membership over the past half century is nearly identical to the decline in middle-class income in America.
And it’s getting worse. A century ago, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and the rest of the robber barons — the 1 percent of their day — earned 18 percent of all American incomes. Today, the 1 percent account for nearly a quarter of all U.S. incomes, according to Noah.
Over the decades, U.S. workers — unionized or not — have benefited by sacrifices and successes of the labor movement. By the mid-’50s, nearly 40 percent of U.S. workers were covered by union-contract provisions whether workers were unionized or not, according to Noah. Wages and benefits were higher for all, thanks to union contracts.
That was a high-water mark of the middle class in America. By 2012, union membership was down to 11 percent of U.S. workers, whose real wages have fallen.
But in 2012, voters also rejected Mitt Romney, the candidate of the 1 percent. In 2011, the Occupy movement formed. On Labor Day 2013, low-wage workers at Walmart stores, KFCs and McDonald’s outlets nationwide — backed by union members — demonstrated for higher pay associated with union wages.
History may be repeating itself.