The ‘Old Middle Class’ May Be Making a Comeback

Miners from the Maerdy Lodge in Gwent return to work following the miners' strike, 5th March 1985 - Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Miners from the Maerdy Lodge in Gwent return to work following the miners’ strike, 5th March 1985 – Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Labor has become a divisive topic in the United States. Economic turmoil has impacted nearly every American in some way in the recent past and headlines have been dominated by words like employment, wages, and recovery. There has been progress made in some aspects, the fact of the matter is that the economy is still pretty beat up.

Unfortunately the middle and lower classes are the ones who have taken the brunt of the blow, and in many respects are still trying to claw their way back to pre-recession levels of prosperity. Some have accomplished that, but it’s been made no secret that virtually all economic gains since the end of the Great Recession have gone to the richest Americans. A paper by Emmanuel Saez at U.C. Berkeley found the “top 1% incomes grew by 31.4% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.4% from 2009 to 2012. Hence, the top 1% captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the recovery.”

That trend has led to the manifestation of several big issues, including a widening inequality gap, further-stagnated wages, and less social and economic mobility.

There are numerous factors that have played a part in getting us to the situation we find ourselves in today, and the decline of one of America’s former middle class fixtures has made for a notable absence — labor unions. We’ve discussed previously how the relationship between declining union membership and rising rates of inequality could be interrelated, and it’s apparent people are starting to actually take the evidence to heart.

For example, just look at what’s happening at some of America’s largest businesses. Companies like Wal-Mart have had to bow to mounting pressure from workers and workers’ groups — although their employees are still not unionized — and increase wages and benefits for their lowest earners. Those things didn’t come without some retaliation, or alleged retaliation, but was a victory for workers nonetheless.

It was a small step, it was an important one. It was an example of how workers can use their collective power to improve their compensation and working conditions, and one is a sign  Big Labor is on the verge of a comeback.

It’s fairly obvious that the decline of organized labor has stifled the growth and prosperity of the middle class in many ways. Even experts who had previously disapproved of unions are seeing the real, tangible effect that a lack of organization is doing to the American middle class. Studies have linked Big Labor’s decline to the creation of record levels of inequality being witnessed in the U.S. today.

“From 1973 to 2007, private sector union membership in the United States declined from 34 to 8 percent for men and from 16 to 6 percent for women,” says a study from researchers at the University of Washington and Harvard. “During this period, inequality in hourly wages increased by over 40 percent.”

Given that union membership is down, along with wages and economic mobility, the time appears to be ripe for a resurgence in workers’ groups and an interest in collective bargaining. The more workers realize their inability or unwillingness to work as a collective is having a direct effect on their paychecks, the more momentum the labor movement will gain.

Bloomberg recently ran an article stating the inevitable result of America’s current economic climate, that “unions are poised for a comeback.” Citing examples such as the the west coast port work stoppage, as well as tightening labor conditions in the energy sector, Bloomberg says though unions have been demonized and run aground by their opponents over the past few decades, conditions are perfect to see the trend reversed.

“This is a political opportunity for organized labor,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard professor, per Bloomberg. “Although the inequality discussion is opening up a space, the conversation has so far not really addressed the problems of parents trying to raise their children, trying to guarantee them a better future.”

While the stage may be set, and the players in their respective places, it doesn’t necessarily mean the play will go off without a hitch.

The very interests that have put considerable resources into conquering organized labor and workers’ groups in the past are stronger than ever, and will put that strength to use trying to prevent the resurgence from gaining any ground. Yes, there have been some victories in small wage increases for many low-wage workers, but the truth is, even those advances are really not much in terms of concessions from the world’s most profitable companies.

For proof unions are up against a very powerful and unforgiving machine, just take a look at what’s happened in states like Wisconsin or Kansas, where Republican state governors — with considerable ties to business interests including, but not limited to, the Koch Brothers — have enacted legislation dismantling collective bargaining rights.

Though the moves were met with much resistance, including sit-ins at the Wisconsin state capitol and even a recall of Governor Walker, the new legislation has stood, and led to considerably weakened labor unions. Seemingly emboldened by his victories in the Wisconsin capitol, Scott Walker has even become one of the frontrunners to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.

That presents a big problem for those hoping to see Big Labor take back some lost ground. Even if Walker doesn’t win the presidency (he’s a bit of a longshot at this point, anyway), the fact that he and his policies have gained enough national support and notoriety to make it to the national spotlight has to be troubling. And he’s not the only one — anti-union rhetoric, The Washington Times says, is one of the most popular and cheer-worthy tools the Republican party has in its arsenal.

If Big Labor truly wants to stage a resurrection, it’s up against a number of powerful adversaries. But the working public should be on Labor’s side, if Labor can effectively get its message across.

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