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corporate dominance | economic justice | labor

A Short History of the U.S. Working Class

Notes from the book by Paul Le Blanc, comments and quotes.
By 1937, according to Le Blanc, "close to one-third of the workforce was unionized."

Contrary to president Roosevelt's image as a great liberal, Le Blanc writes that "FDR's primary commitment was not to his working-class supporters - he was no less committed to the interests of big business, which sometimes meant giving labor the short end of the stick." Likewise Democratic administrations ever since.

After WWII, federal legislation was passed to reduce the power of unions. Still, 1945-46 saw "American labor's greatest upsurge ... and the consequence was the beginning of a steady rise in living standards - and buying power - of U.S. workers for the next 25 years... Adjusted for inflation, average wages increased by 250 percent from 1945 to 1975."

The unions blew it by not starting their own political party, concentrating only on the welfare of their own members, and not organizing the unorganized. They also tried to increase their membership by raiding other unions. So "labor came to be viewed more and more as a 'special interest group' seeking benefits for a limited sector of the working class." Union membership declined from 36 percent in 1955 to 14 percent in 1995. Besides union incompetence, the loss was also due to antiunion laws, corporate pressure, and the deindustrialization of America, which wiped out a great many unionized, family wage factory jobs.

By the 1970s and 80s, Le Blanc says, U.S. business was feeling competition from the rebuilt economies of Europe and Asia. One of the ways they dealt with that was by reducing wages.

Meanwhile taxes have been downshifted to the middle and lower classes: "... the average tax bill for millionaires fell 27 percent from 1986 to 1989... . The top corporate rate in the 1950s was 52 percent. In the 1990s [it was] 36 percent."

I'm generally pro-union, but it's hard to care when I don't see them doing me any good, and I have to compete with their higher incomes when I go to the supermarket. Also when they don't support what I want politically. Unions have become embedded in the Democratic party, so they fight anything to the left which they perceive as a threat to the Democrats.

Still, Oregon unions have gotten us, through the initiative, two increases in the state minimum wage, which is a big deal.

What I would propose is to organize those whose yearly income is below the U.S. median, the people who are feeling the pain, and are being ignored by the major parties.

A great many people in this country are now dependent on government safety net programs for survival. We are entitled to these programs, both on the basis of morality and because we have been vastly underpaid for our labor. If the middle and upper classes are going to exploit us for cheap goods and services, then they should pay the bill.

Some quotes from Le Blanc:

"The accumulation of property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is, that the working hand perishes in old age, and that the employer abounds in affluence." - Tom Paine

Some in the U.S. labor movement of 1940 believed ... that [World War II] in some ways ... was also a power struggle - including a struggle for markets, raw materials and economic conquest, similar to what World War I had turned out to be... .

... [corporate] economic power translated into political power, and the big corporations became profoundly influential at all levels of government and in both major political parties.

Throughout the 1980s, corporate profits rose 205 percent, while the wages of production workers rose slower than the price rise in consumer goods... . In the 1979-1994 period the bottom 60 percent of all families saw their inflation-adjusted incomes decline... .

"The coalition of an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed and welfare recipients may be the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform." - Martin Luther King Jr., 1966

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