Tom Eblen: As unions wane, the middle class suffers

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

Happy Labor Day.

Chances are, if you are one of the majority of Americans who labor rather than own for a living, you aren't feeling very happy.

This hasn't been a good year for middle-class workers, much less for the poor. In fact, it hasn't been a good three-plus decades.

Economic and political forces have hammered working people. Real income for the bottom 80 percent of Americans has been stagnant or falling since the late 1970s. Few paid much attention until the 2008 financial crisis, because the trends were masked by rising personal and government debt.

During these years of middle-class decline, it has been fashionable to bash labor unions. Perhaps that is because people take for granted the things unions fought to make part of the American workplace — the eight-hour work day, overtime pay, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance and safe working conditions. Unions led the fight to end child labor and discrimination against minorities and women. They played a big role in creating Social Security and other government safety-net programs.

After World War II, as much as 25 percent of the work force belonged to unions, and their contracts set standards by which many non-union workers benefited. Last year's census showed union membership at 11.9 percent, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. America now has 14.7 million union members — roughly the same number of people now unemployed.

Unions have plenty of flaws; all institutions do. But they serve an important role in balancing the power of business. Power without balance becomes abusive. We have seen that with business, labor, government and even churches. It is no coincidence that the decline of middle-class income and security over the past three decades has followed the declining influence of organized labor.

Statistics show that all real income growth since 1979 has gone to the wealthiest 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans, with the wealthiest 1 percent gaining the most, by far. Wealth inequality is the highest it has been since the 1920s.

The deep economic hole that politicians are debating how to fill was caused mostly by financial speculation, unfunded wars of choice and irresponsible tax cuts. But you hear little talk in Washington about a crackdown on Wall Street, real tax reform or scaling back military adventurism.

That is because wealthy interests have largely taken over both political parties. Democrats still give lip service to the middle class and poor, but the GOP has become a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America.

President Barack Obama speaks Thursday to a joint session of Congress. He will propose a plan aimed at creating jobs, reviving the economy and improving his chances for re-election. Republicans will be against whatever he proposes, because they don't want the economy to improve anytime soon. If the economy improves, they have less chance of taking back the White House.

The Republican prescription for economic recovery is to do more of the things that wrecked the economy in the first place: less business regulation and more tax cuts. The problem with trickle-down economics is that it only makes wealth trickle up, as the past three decades have shown.

Republican leaders also want aggressive debt-cutting austerity, but only for those who can least afford it. As history has repeatedly shown, this strategy only makes a weak economy weaker.

But it all depends on your perspective. The Main Street economy where most of us live and work is stuck in neutral. But Wall Street profits, corporate cash reserves and executive compensation have never been better. Times are good for the people whose campaign contributions and lobbying have all but shut average Americans out of the political debate.

The public is angry, and Tea Party activists are the most visible reflection of that. But their misguided philosophy plays right into the hands of big business. Why else do you think billionaires are funding those Tea Party organizations?

I am usually not a pessimist, but I see little hope for recovery as long as the interests of corporate America are so divergent from those of working Americans. The economy won't improve until average people have more money to spend. Until the middle class finds political voice to demand that things change — as organized labor did a century ago — things won't change.