Unions as an American economic institution appear to be well on their way to extinction. As of 2010, only 11 percent of U.S. workers are represented by unions. The private sector is now down to 7 percent. While public sector workers still have about 37 percent membership, it is increasingly clear that those unions are under attack. That effort is represented by events like the recent legislation in Wisconsin and ballot initiatives in California cutting public employee benefits and salaries.
Unions became well established on the American landscape during the New Deal. The Wagner Act gave access to organize in the workplace. They had activist members with some very radical political ideas. Following World War Two there was a concerted effort from the political right to curtail their activities. The Taft-Hartley Act was a major initiative, and then the general anti-communist movement that ran under the banner of McCarthyism set out to paint them with the red brush.
In the late '40s the U.S. was at the peak of its economic prosperity and its global influence. By the mid '50s a consumerist settlement was reached with American labor. Skilled workers in key industries were given the assurance of comfortable wages and benefits in exchange for restrictions in their ability to push further changes in the system. They settled into the new suburbs in a more comfortable lifestyle than most of them had ever known before.
America's post-war prosperity lasted for about a generation. That was long enough for the public to become accustomed to it and to believe that it would last forever. The hyperinflation of the 1970s was the beginning of a long, slow decline. The incomes of most workers began to stagnate. Recessions became more severe and lasted longer. Those were interspersed with the stock market bubble of the '90s and the housing bubble on the next decade. The message that was preached was to go out and consume to keep all the balls in the air.
Americans have always been somewhat fuzzy in their notions about class. We started out as a frontier nation holding out the promise of social mobility. While it is a subject that many people are uncomfortable talking about, most people have some notion of where they place themselves in the hierarchy. During the depths of the great depression, a considerable portion of American workers thought of themselves as working class people who needed to band together for protection. Unions were one of the most important approaches to this effort. While they were never a panacea for all workers, they did contribute significantly to improving the economic circumstances of U.S. labor, both directly through collective bargaining and indirectly by economic and political pressure.
Most of the people who were old enough to remember living through the Great Depression never forgot it. The fear and uncertainty left them inclined to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. The generation that came after that became known as the baby boomers began their lives in a time of relative plenty. Regardless of what sort of families they were born into, life seemed to hold out the prospect of upward class mobility.
Multiple factors contributed to the decline of unions that began in the '70s; the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to Asia and the generally anti-union deep south and a new generation of workers who felt that unions were irrelevant. Even though there was little growth in the purchasing power of individual incomes, the tidal wave of women entering the workforce contributed to the expansion of family incomes for a period. The steady rise in property values made it possible for families to go ever deeper into debt to support the consumerist lifestyle. Few people wanted to think of themselves as working class with those shiny new SUVs and they certainly didn't miss the unions.
Then the bubble burst with a very loud pop and along came the great crash of 2008. Four years later, any notion of recovery is a matter of trying to juggle statistics and cook the books. About the best that can be said is that the economy has stabilized at a level of stagnation. Things are not getting better and with various storm clouds in the global horizon, there is no reason to assume that they can't get worse. Both major parties are offering somewhat different flavors of neoliberal nostrums. They all talk about saving the middle class. They never mention the working class.
What I have found striking and depressing about the response of the American public to the economic circumstances of the past four years is the general passiveness and helplessness. The Tea Party movement and then the Occupy movement ran around making a bit of noise, but neither one appears to have had any impact. What unions that do remain seem to be equally immobilized. They are clinging to the raft of survival. A nation that has no living memory of a time of national despair finds it impossible to believe that things won't just somehow get back to "normal" if we just behave politely like the good middle class people that we are supposed to be. Meanwhile the folks on Wall Street get richer and the income gap gets wider. What seems to me to be lacking is something to fill the role that was performed by a militant labor movement in the past. The notion that everybody can and should be middle class seems to have been a dangerous trap.