- - Monday, August 30, 2021

More than 125 years after President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday, American workers face a rather different set of challenges than the laborers of the late 19th century, who scratched out a living by working at least 12 hours a day in unsafe conditions.

As another Labor Day approaches, private-sector union membership remains low compared to its historic high reached during the quarter-century after World War II.

Income inequality has worsened. Some 50 million Americans are in “occupations with a median wage of less than $15 per hour,” according to researchers at the Brookings Institution.

Billionaires, such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, have seen their fortunes balloon during the pandemic while their companies fight efforts by their employees to organize. And public opinion surveys show that significant percentages of American workers are dissatisfied with their jobs.

In this episode of History As It Happens, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein discusses the driving forces behind the rise of the union movement, its setbacks after the 1970s, and whether the future of blue-collar work in a global economy has a place for unions.

“Trade unions as institutions and the general standard of living of most Americans have more or less stagnated for many decades, and this is a product of transformations in American capitalism. Also, obviously policy and politics have played a role,” said Mr. Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

By the mid-1950s, about one of three non-farm workers in the U.S. belonged to a labor union. An estimated 21 million American workers were unionized in 1979. But, according to federal data, union membership has plummeted since the Reagan era. As of 2015, union membership had fallen to 11% of the workforce.

“Economists, historians and sociologists have been debating the reason for union decline. A certain proportion of it, maybe a third, has been international competition… There’s a reason Apple computers are all built in China rather than the U.S.,” said Mr. Lichtenstein, the author of “State of the Union: A Century of American Labor.”

“The other part has been a shift, politically, of the Republican Party, and part of the Democrats, to a very hostile view of unions. There used to be a sizable element of the Republicans … who were pro-union. They didn’t like radical unions, of course, but they were happy to work with the building trades,” Mr. Lichtenstein said.

Efforts to unionize also face powerful opposition from some of the largest employers in the United States, such as Walmart, whose workers typically earn low wages with unpredictable hours, he said.

“People want predictability in their life … and the single biggest grievance of Walmart workers is the episodic and unpredictable hours of work,” Mr. Lichtenstein said.

For more of Mr. Lichtenstein’s observations on the historic role of labor unions in working to improve the lives of ordinary workers, as well as whether unions can recover their standing culturally and politically, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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