One of the most unfairly maligned institutions today are labor unions. We constantly hear the right wing say that they aren’t necessary anymore and many of them even go so far as to describe union members as “thugs.” In reality, unions are the only check and balance on the political and economic power of the corporations and the wealthy. Among other things, union members are policemen, firefighters, teachers, nurses, construction workers, hotel workers, professional athletes, and autoworkers. Union members are our family members, friends, and neighbors. How have unions helped the middle class and our country? Just who is attacking unions? What have been the real world consequences of the decline in union membership?

If you have enjoyed your most recent weekend or paid day off, you can thank a union. We can all thank unions for things we enjoy:

-The five-day work week.
– Fair wages and relative economic equality – unions raise average wages for their members and they also indirectly raise wages for similar non-union workers.
– The minimum wage.
– The end of child labor.
– Widespread employer based health coverage.
– Occupational safety.
– Workers compensation.
– Overtime pay.
– Retirement pension plans.
– Maternity Leave.

A study of history teaches us that the workplace was not always fair or safe. Thanks to organized labor, workers were able to come together as a cohesive group and convince previous Congresses to pass laws that benefited all workers. Unions also play a pivotal role in organizing and turning out working class voters who will support candidates who will protect the middle class. Unions also make significant political contributions to candidates who prioritize the interests of working Americans rather than the wealthy and corporations.

Unfortunately, these hard won gains by the unions have been under assault for over thirty years by the corporations, the wealthy and the Republican Party. Beginning in the 1970s, big business began to play a larger role in American politics. Since that time, the corporations and the wealthy have literally contributed billions of dollars to candidates who are committed to destroying unions and reducing the rights and earning power of middle class Americans. Union membership has declined from a peak of 30% in 1960 to approximately 11% today.

These rights won by organized labor – which many Americans take for granted – are constantly being challenged by the GOP. Just a few months ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill on a straight party line vote that would relax rules requiring businesses to pay their employees overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week. Unsurprisingly, all three Nebraska House Republicans voted for it. This legislation would weaken federal overtime laws, allowing for “comp” time instead of pay for private sector employees who work more than 40 hours in a week. The House Democrats labeled it the “More Work, Less Pay Act.”

This all-out assault on the middle class by the wealthy and the GOP has had negative consequences for the middle class and all Americans. The economic impact of this decline in the political influence of the middle class is disturbing. We have seen an economically stagnant middle class, a steady reduction of job-related health and retirement benefits and ever rising economic inequality. When labor was at its numerical peak around 1960, the wealthiest 10% earned 33% of the nation’s income. By 2007, with the labor movement greatly diminished, the wealthiest 10% grabbed 50% of the nation’s income. Today, wages account for the lowest share of both GDP and corporate revenue since 1945 and that share continues to decline.

A rising ride is said to raise all boats but because of the right wing’s assault on organized labor, our country now has the highest level of inequality since 1928. It was no coincidence that our nation experienced its most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression at the same time we had high levels of economic inequality. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has contended that that there are three causal connections between inequality and crashes: “First, the rich spend a smaller proportion of their wealth than the less affluent, and so when more and more wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, there is less overall spending and less overall manufacturing to meet consumer needs. Second, in both the Roaring 20s and 2000-2007 period, the middle class incurred a lot of debt to pay for the things they wanted, as their real wages were stagnating and they were getting a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. In other words, they had less and less wealth, and so they borrowed more and more to make up the difference. And third, since the wealthy accumulated more, they wanted to invest more, so a lot of money poured into speculative investments, leading to huge bubbles, which eventually burst.”

The key to a dynamic and growing economy is a confident middle class with money to spend. The consumers of the middle class are the job creators – it is not the top 1% that is lionized by the GOP. This is because consumer spending generates approximately 70% of economic activity. One of the leading causes of our current slow economic growth is the diminished earning power of the middle class. The best way to improve economic growth is for the middle class to have higher incomes and more spending power. America needs unions now more than ever. The key to a prosperous middle class is a re-vitalized union movement. We need to grow from the middle class out.

We Democrats must get the message out to our family, friends and civic groups to which we belong that unions are good for the middle class and good for America. We must do everything we can to counter the pervasive and false propaganda about unions coming from the corporations and their allies in the GOP and the right wing media. We must also continue to work for candidates who support the middle class. If the union movement dies out, America’s middle class dies with it. The stakes are that high.