Ron Formisano: Attacking labor movement is same as attacking middle class

December 10, 2013 

The 2000s have gone down as "The Lost Decade of the Middle Class," but the hollowing out of the middle class has gone on for decades. Inequality in America has reached record heights not seen since the 1920s or the late 19th-century Gilded Age.

The United States is now more unequal than almost every other economically advanced country, with its middle class getting smaller. A prime cause has been the decline of labor unions.

Unions in their heyday from the 1940s through the 1960s contributed greatly to building the middle class, but an unfortunate amnesia and anti-union propaganda has obscured that history for too many, even though Gallup reported that 54 percent of adults 18 and older now approve of organized labor.

The rise of inequality in the U.S. over the past four decades parallels the decline of unions. The correlation is not accidental because unions not only raise the pay and gain benefits (pensions, health coverage) for their workers but also for nonunion workers who profit from the presence of unions in their locale or industry — call them collateral benefits. Any effort to hurt unions is a blow struck against the middle class.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell has long waged class warfare against unions. Now he and Sen. Rand Paul have proposed an amendment to a workplace discrimination bill to create a national right-to-work law. Such laws have been pushed by reactionary businessmen and Republicans in two dozen states and are helping to perpetuate middle-class decline and inequality. They should be called right-to-work- for-lowest-or-minimum-wages-with-no benefits.

McConnell claims, "'Big Labor' has come to care more about its own perks and power than workers."

Big Labor? One has to wonder what planet McConnell inhabits. Oh, that's right, he has been in that bubble removed from reality known as Washington, D.C. for about 30 years. And speaking of "perks and power".... but that is a subject for another day.

Union membership in 2012 was 11.3 percent of the work force, down from 11.8 in 2011. Private-sector membership stands at a mere 6.6 percent, so just what McConnell is talking about is not clear. At their height in the 1950s, unions enrolled 35 percent of the work force, but have declined ever since. Maybe the good senator's head is still in the 1950s.

According to a study by the Center for American Progress Fund, in states with more union members the middle class earns significantly more income than states with low union membership. In the 10 most-unionized states "households in the middle class received 47.4 percent of total state income... in the bottom 10 states, households in the middle class received only 46.8 percent," according to the report.

That seemingly insignificant difference of 0.6 percent amounts to real money: in 2012 0.6 percent of Pennsylvania's aggregate income amounted to over $2 billion, about $700 per middle-class household. Bottom line: more unionized states have stronger middle classes. Making war on unions makes war on the middle class.

Ron Formisano of Lexington, is author of The Tea Party: A Brief History and is at work on a study of inequality in the United States.

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