WITH JORDANNA THIGPEN
Photo by Jack
The decline of the middle class
By Jordanna Thigpen
February 10, 2006
We have several major problems in this country,
but here's a pressing one: in twenty years, we likely will not
have a middle class.
I am clearly not an economics expert - amazingly, being a small
business owner doesn't require a solid base in economics. But
it seems to me that in the first half of the 20th century, we
built a solid middle class in the US by manufacturing and consuming
our own goods. We were able to invest in infrastructure, in education,
in massive public works projects. The middle class grew in part
because of unions. In 1955, when the AFL-CIO formed, 35% of the
American workforce belonged to unions. Today only approximately
8% of Americans in the private sector are union members.
In the postwar era, we started accumulating a sizeable amount
of debt, and we shifted manufacturing overseas. Everyone claimed
the service economy would make up for this massive economic transformation.
Now, service jobs are shifting overseas as well. Exactly what
will people do for a living in the next twenty years in this country?
The destruction of the middle class is problematic for everyone.
Last July the Teamsters, SEIU, and others announced a split from
the AFL-CIO because no one could agree on the vision for their
partnership. The Teamsters even said they would consider backing
a Republican because they want to follow a more bipartisan effort.
The split was troubling because it further weakened the labor
movement. And that means our society is further weakened.
A lot of people, especially professionals and small business
owners, have a poor opinion of unions. They feel that unions prevent
meaningful civil service reform from taking place. They feel that
historically, Democratic politicians have been forced to acquiesce
to Labor demands, in order to gain valuable endorsements and for
fundraising purposes. They feel that collective bargaining agreements
hamstring employers and the government by driving costs to unbearable
levels. Perhaps, there is something to these allegations. Perhaps
what some call Big Labor has contributed to this negative image.
Perhaps collaboration on civil service reform, which is in progress,
is the most direct path to resolution. The stark truth is that
unions are absolutely necessary and must become more viable if
we are to get our nation back on track, because unions are the
only reason we still have a middle class.
Unions built America. Unions brought safer working conditions.
Unions won decent wages that raised generations. It's no accident
that the decline of unions over the past fifty years has coincided
with the apparent genocide of the middle class. Multinationals
declared war on unions because it makes for better profits to
send jobs overseas. This is a short-sighted and failed approach,
economically speaking. With no middle class, there will be no
consumer class. If multinationals won't come to support unions
for humane reasons, perhaps they will to protect their long-term
How do we increase union membership to 1955 levels? We have to
go to the largest employers. As consumers, we must ask multinational
corporations such as Wal-Mart and Starbucks to stop unlawfully
discouraging union membership. There is actually a Starbucks Workers
Union, an IWW affiliate, although it is not currently NLRB-certified.
New York City has seen a lot of activity with this union. At 42%
insured, Starbucks actually has a lower percentage of workers
with health insurance than Wal-Mart's 47%. To avoid potential
threats of employer-mandated health coverage, Starbucks only employs
20% of workers as full-time employees. The rest are part-time
employees with no guarantee of a regular schedule. This is a practice
(common to employers in communities where employer-mandated coverage
is the law, by the way) that unions could address.
Wal-Mart, obviously, is a different animal. Much has been written
about Wal-Mart's opposition to unions. Consider that Wal-Mart
purchased the domain name www.unionizewalmart.com, and it's registered
to headquarters in Arkansas, but there's no website in existence
promoting union membership in its stores. Wal-Mart won't even
spring for the extra $10 per year to hide the WHOIS information
on Network Solutions' website. Another brilliant public relations
Corporate America has become quite clever at blaming unions for
its problems. Some commentators blame unions for the implosion
of the airline and auto industries. But it is a stunning lack
of innovation and, in the auto industry's case, a long and unholy
alliance with Big Oil, that has caused these industries to fail.
Making life more difficult for unions might help multinationals
with their profits, but it won't rebuild the middle class. America
needs a new industry, and a strong union base for support. It
is the only way we will be able to rebuild ourselves from the
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