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How labor helped build the American middle class

Labor Day! It’s a time when Americans celebrate their workers and their achievements, through parades, picnics and fireworks. However, many people are not aware the beginnings of this day – that is, the struggle of the workers for decent wages and safe places in their factories.

At the height of the industrial revolution in the late 1800s, many workers had to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week in unsafe factories. In response, the unions often went on strikes for better situations, which unleashed a wave of riots killing many workers. The corporations had the power over the unions and the governments by hiring smart lawyers in the courts, using thugs to beat down the strikers and firing activist workers. Under those situations, some union leaders called for a Labor Day to celebrate the workers’ achievements, and laws governing negotiations with the corporations.

By the end of the century, cities were rising during the Progressive Era (1895-1920). Reformers were committed to helping workers and lower classes by promoting laws to improve safety in the working places, higher wages, shorter hours, health reforms and regulation of big business. In New York State, many of those laws were enacted after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Co.’s fire in New York City, where 146 young women were killed, trapped in their locked workrooms. People down below witnessed the girls leaping out their windows, their hair “aflame,” and “thud after thud sounded on the pavements,” the New York World reported.

After that, Albany passed more than 50 laws and New York State emerged as a school for how to deal with the Great Depression. When the Depression hit the nation, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1929-1933) promoted laws for relief for the unemployed and old-age pensions – steps for the New Deal.

If there was ever a golden age for America’s labor unions, it was from 1935 to the 1970s. To pull the nation out of the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s administration put together an avalanche of programs to stimulate and reform the economy and help the American people, from the lower classes to the top echelon.

Among Roosevelt’s strongest officials was his labor secretary, Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member and a trailblazer in helping the working classes. After witnessing the Triangle fire, she was transformed “to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.” When the president offered her the labor secretary post, she agreed – but only if he would fight for her goals, including unemployment relief, work hour limitations, minimum wage, child labor laws and social security insurance.

High in her list of policies was the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. With the NLRA on the table, corporations had to bargain with their workers, which created a balance between Big Business and Big Labor “to share their incomes and benefits,” as economist Robert B. Reich put it. Shortly after World War II, unions reached their peak and “real wages for the workers rose by 75 percent,” and for three decades “almost a third of all employees belonged to unions and their wages increased in tandem with the production,” according to Harold Meyerson, editor of American Prospect. And with the workers’ buying power, business became a force in creating the strongest middle-class economy in our history.

Moreover, many non-union workers rode on the unions’ backs to get the same benefits from their companies, lest those employees would leave or form their own union. Beyond that, the unions have used their political power to raise minimum wages and increase overtime pay, health care coverage, retirement benefits and others benefits for all workers.

But in the last 35 years, Wall Street, corporations and conservative individuals have been shaping our government and our economy. Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform, created a pledge not to raise the taxes, and was able to get most Republicans in Congress to sign it even though the nation’s debt was increasing by trillions of dollars. At the same time, unions were losing power as corporations sent work to factories in Third World countries or in “right-to-work” states, while using new technologies to do much of the work.

By Labor Day 2012, “only 11.8 percent of American workers were union members; in the private sector, it’s 6.9 percent,” according to Meyerson. With the unions’ power going down, much of the increase in the nation’s income went to corporations and investors, and the middle class lost much of its purchasing power, undercutting the nation’s economy.

When President Obama entered the White House in January 2009, he had to deal with the Great Recession and a Republican leadership in Congress determined to make him fail. As Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell put it, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Despite the roadblocks thrown at him, Obama managed to stimulate the economy by cutting taxes and promoting public works; helping save GM and Chrysler, preserving hundreds of thousands of jobs; regulated big banks to deal with their financial crisis; and passed the Affordable Care Act, enabling millions of Americans to have health care. The New York Times reported March 5 that “the private sector has chalked up 72 months of uninterrupted job gains, the longest streak on record.”

When Obama appointed Thomas E. Perez labor secretary, he hired the strongest labor secretary since Frances Perkins, according to Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service International Employees Union. Labor leaders welcomed him for cracking down on civil rights violations when he was assistant attorney general.

But at the end of the day, Obama claimed that the rising income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.” The solution, according to many economists, is to increase “progressive income taxes” on the rich, followeed by a “redistribution” in which all citizens share of our total wealth.

Indeed, a survey by an investment group in October 2011 showed that 87 percent of investors would support increased taxes on millionaires to improve our economy. Last March, 50 New York State millionaires sent an open letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders urging them to increase income tax rates for upper-income New Yorkers and using the money to create “pathways out of poverty … for our fellow citizens” and “invest in the fragile bridges, tunnels, waterlines, public buildings and roads that we all depend on.”

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she would build on Obama’s achievements. In a speech last March, she said, “I’ve always believed that when unions are strong … America is strong. … Today, you’re leading the fight to raise the minimum wages [to lift] working Americans out of poverty.”

A Gallup survey in August 2015 showed that nearly 6 in 10 Americans have a favorable view of unions, up from 48 percent 2009.

I don’t know if the unions will become as strong as they were under the New Deal period. But today, there is an American progressive coalition emerging – unions, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, women, LGBT, moderate Republicans and Democratic billionaires – committed to reducing our inequality and promoting policies for all citizens to share the nation’s wealth and dignity.

Edward Cuddy is a professor emeritus at Daemen College.

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