Labor Unions and the Middle Class


The ongoing protests and strikes by public employees and Democratic state senators in Madison, Wisconsin, are the latest chapter in the history of labor unions and the right to collective bargaining.

Much of the growth in salaries, benefits, and working conditions of American workers is the result of the passage of labor laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Each of these labor laws resulted from protests and strikes by workers that brought attention to the need for fairness in employment to Congress and state legislatures. That power of unions and collective bargaining helped make the American economic middle class the largest in the world.

Now, the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has proposed a new budget to cover the shortfall of more than $3 billion by targeting the public employees of Wisconsin to bear the brunt of the budget cuts. This has sparked the protests by teachers and other public employees who oppose the cuts to their salaries, benefits, and pensions while the state provides a tax cut for businesses and the rich.

The most onerous provision of the proposed budget, however, is the rescinding of collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. SIRS Issues Researcher has all the information you and your students need to deeply dive into this myriad of issues.

These protests are also significant in the fight for worker rights because the Midwest is the birthplace of the modern industrial union. United Auto Workers formed in Detroit. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union representing many government workers, got its start in Madison, Wisconsin.

In both Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican-led legislatures are pushing bills that would strip unions of much of their negotiating power. Republican governor Scott Walker’s plan would strip most public employees of collective bargaining on everything but pay. That means when it comes to health benefits or work conditions or anything else up for discussion, power would shift from unions to management. A majority of workers would also have to re-authorize the union every year, and it would be harder for unions to collect dues. That’s what the protesters consider union-busting.

The intensity of the Wisconsin protests are sparked by the fear that the success of Governor Walker in Wisconsin will lead to a national effort to end collective bargaining and unions in every state for both public and private sector employees. The anti-union momentum began under Ronald Reagan, when he busted the Air Traffic Controllers Union in the 1980s. Since then, union membership in this country has decreased significantly. Nationally, 36 percent of public employees are union members, while only 7 percent of private sector workers are unionized. As union membership has decreased over the last three decades, so has the share of national income of the middle class.

But for now, these protests have reunited a fractured labor movement. The Teamsters and the AFL-CIO are talking again after parting ways in 2005. But this unified front is in a battle for survival. If Wisconsin, Ohio, or any state passes limits on collective bargaining, anti-union legislation could sweep the nation. And that could forever change the balance of power and politics.

Learning Activity
Students need to understand more about the history of the modern labor-movement protests and work stoppages that provided the impetus for government to create labor laws. Each of these separate laws was targeted to help workers to collectively bargain for better salaries, benefits, working conditions, and pensions.

Assign students to write a report of at least 150 words or create a presentation of at least seven slides. The report should cite at least three resources from the Pathfinder listed below. Students should address the following essential questions for critical thinking (you may add or substitute others):

  • What were the major historical issues that resulted in collective bargaining laws and labor unions?
  • What are at least three labor laws and what rights did they provide for workers?
  • What are the causes of the decline of labor union membership over the last three decades?
  • What are some current trends and labor union reforms needed to increase labor union membership?
  • Are labor unions needed today—why or why not?

Pathfinder Links to SIRS Articles
Auto Pact Signals New Era for Organized Labor

Congress of Industrial Organizations

Employee Free Choice Act Will Revive Economy by Restoring Workers’…

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW

Labor Day’s Origins Rooted in Sweatshops

Labor Movement

Labor Unions

Labor: The State of Labor—Busting the Busters

National Labor Relations Act

Ready to Rumble

Reeducating Unions

The Future Cabinet: Labor

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One thought on “Labor Unions and the Middle Class

  1. Pingback: PM joins labor unity torch parade for PALEA | Human Rights Online Philippines

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