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Farewell to the Middle Class?

The people who gave you weekends may soon be historical curiosities along with many features of my childhood like dial telephones and home milk delivery.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that union membership declined at an accelerating rate last year, compounding the losses experienced in organized labor over recent decades which have brought unionization to its lowest level since 1916.  In 2012 alone the number of union workers declined by 400,000 even as employment rose by 2.4 million.  Private sector unions, once the heart of the movement, now represent just 6.6% of the workforce after peaking at 35% in the 1950’s.  Public sector union membership is 35.9% of the workforce, but that also represents losses in 2012. 

The loss of manufacturing jobs is part of the story.  Big auto, big steel and their counterparts used to be enormous union shops, but not so much today.  Union failure itself is also part of the problem.  Stories abound about how rigid union rules have constrained flexibility and creativity, reducing productivity.  Extravagant pensions for some public sector union leaders, crafted through dubious deals with state legislators, have further inflamed attitudes, particularly in states where governors and representatives have allowed unfunded pension obligations to balloon.  Like every institutional sector in our society – including the mainline church – unions share some of the blame for their woes.

But there’s another story, one of deliberate corporate and governmental collusion to undermine unions.  As corporations become more mobile, and as states compete for industries like college football coaches recruiting star athletes, states like South Carolina with its hostile union environment have been successful in recruiting manufacturing companies like Boeing and Volkswagon to expand their workforce away from friendly union states. 

Places like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan are systematically attempting to eviscerate unions.  In Wisconsin, for example, where public service unions were stripped of their bargaining rights, union membership among government workers fell by 48,000 last year from 187,000 to 139,000.  In Indiana, where a “right to work” law was passed last year allowing workers to drop membership in unions, thereby avoiding dues, while still benefiting from the collective bargaining of the union they left, unionization dropped from 11.3% to 9.1%.  It’s not hard to understand the appeal of receiving the benefits of organized labor without having to pay for it.  And hard not to see the cynicism behind “right to work” laws which appeal to personal freedom while crippling personal aspiration.  And the National Labor Relations Board, established to maintain a level playing field between corporations and labor, has been crippled because the President’s nominations to field vacancies have been blocked by Republicans in Congress.  Recess appointments finally allowed the Board to function, but those appointments have now been successfully challenged in court, calling into question hundreds of decisions in the past months.  And impending federal budget cuts under sequestration will further reduce state and local workforces, hitting public sector unions hardest.

Unions have had success organizing the growing Hispanic and Asian population, particularly in low wage sectors like hotels and retail.  Car wash workers in Chicago recently signed an agreement significantly improving pay and working conditions, with the support of a local religion-labor coalition and the aid of the United Steelworkers.  The Chicago City council just passed groundbreaking legislation allowing the city to revoke business licenses of companies committing wage theft.  But these advances will hardly stem the tide of labor’s losses.

In the midst of the Depression, Monsignor John Ryan, the foremost Catholic social ethicist of his day, said that

effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of laborer’s rights and the improvement of his or her condition.  No amount of employer benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no increase of beneficial legislation, can adequately supply for the lack of organization among the workers themselves.

The Catholic Church has historically been far more supportive of the labor movement than the rank and file of the Protestant mainline, the former attentive to blue collar workers and police and fire fighters in its pews among immigrant congregations, the later more beholden to the managerial class that has filled its pews and tempered the rhetoric of justice from its pulpits.  But as the middle class faces the specter of obsolescence, a new ecumenical coalition is desperately needed, one that blessedly is not distracted by the divisive social issues that have successfully derailed so many critical moral collaborations.

Should we care?  Yes.  It’s no mere coincidence that the relentless decline of the middle class in the past four decades and the growing income gap has tracked the decline in the labor movement.  The numbers tell the story:  Last year the mean annual salary for unionized workers in this country was $49,000 while for nonunion workers it was $38,600.  When I was dialing my old rotary phone or collecting the bottles of milk from my back porch as a child, it seemed that a decent wage and a comfortable retirement might soon be in the reach of most Americans.  That dream is slowly being shattered, not by relentless forces beyond our control, but by deliberate corporate and government policy.  Unions are not the sole solution to this frightening vision, but they remain a crucial part of the solution.  All of us who care about a just economic future need to pay attention.

John H. Thomas
February 7, 2013

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