Joseph Adams - 2016 Essay Winner


What is the Correlation Between the Rise and Fall of Unions and the Middle Class of the United States and What Benefits Does a Strong Middle Class Do For Workers and Worker Safety in the United States?



An essay by Joseph Adams

On April 4th, 1968, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in Memphis to support the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, where workers were protesting horrendous working conditions and incredibly low pay – some workers were so poor they had dirt floors. The protesters carried signs that read. “I am a Man.” And although this slogan became a rallying cry of the Civil Rights Movement, another movement can lay claim to the idea it represents. That movement would be, of course, the Labor Movement.

Despite attempts by some to characterize the Labor Movement in terms similar to those of more ignominious groups, the noble purpose of the Labor Movement – the assertion that, like the wealthy upper class, the common man has an inalienable claim to human dignity – shines through. In the face of oppression worldwide, labor unions stand as protector, in the face of greed, as a reminder of the dignity of all.

As such, it is not hard to see how unions are at the forefront of the push for safer workplaces. If a movement is founded on respect for human dignity, it is no stretch to imagine that movement supporting worker safety. Indeed, the strength of the Labor Movement over the past century is responsible for the incredible safety standards present in the US today. Furthermore, in order to finish the battle for the common man, labor unions need to be strong and respected. Worker safety depends, in a way, on the way unions are viewed and treated in the media and society in general. The strength of the middle class rests on unions, the stronger the middle class, the more influence ordinary citizens have on politics. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to stand with unions as they fight for our rights.

Another area where unions were instrumental was in the establishment of the middle class. While good pay may not be a right in the same sense as worker safety, unions, through the power of collective bargaining, were able to negotiate higher pay for workers during the middle of the last century. The work unions did then helped establish the strongest middle class ever. In fact, unions and the middle class have become interdependent for survival in our current political and economic climate.

The relationship between strong unions and a strong middle class in America may be less apparent than that between unions and safety. Nevertheless, such a relationship exists. According to Pew Research Center, the percent of the population classified as middle class has shrunk from 61 percent in 1970 to 50 percent in 2014 (“The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground.” Pew Research Centers). During that same time frame, the percent of workers in labor unions decreased from 27.4 percent to roughly 10 percent, according to studies done by Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school. Numbers do not lie. The fall of the middle class is strongly correlated to the inability of unions to maintain membership. This has had many effects on the economy as a whole. Not least among these, and apparent to most candid observers, is the diminishing influence that the middle class commands over politics. The disappearance of the common man from politics is closely linked to the shrinking of unions nationwide.

Clearly, what our nation needs is stronger unions to support and bulwark the middle class. The former strength of the Union was founded upon the strength of unions – labor unions. The amount of good the Labor Movement does will depend on how much support it receives from the ones for whom it has so tirelessly fought.