emily Woitas - 2017 Scholarship WinnerWhat 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?


by Emily Woitas 



   Union strength is more than a correlation: it is the cause of the rise of the middle class in America. The graph below, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that as workers endured the Great Depression, they organized to strengthen their bargaining position in the workplace. As America emerged from World War II, unionized  workers were between 25% and 35% of the workforce. This strength directly created the middle class.

   The 50's, 60's, and 70's were a period of unparalleled growth of the middle class: home ownership  soared, while health benefits, worker sick leave and retirement plans all expanded. The middle class was thriving! In 1981, disaster struck. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike to improve their horrendous  working conditions. Wages weren't an issue; they felt they were fairly paid, yet the stress of the job and the infrequent breaks were intolerable. These workers felt they were under too much pressure to guarantee the safety of the flying public.

   Newly elected President Ronald Reagan (ironically  the former union President of the Screen Actors Guild) acted personally offended that public workers should have the right to strike. He threatened to fire them all! PATCO felt strongly that public safety was more important than their personal security and continued the strike. On August 5, 1981, President Reagan fired more than 11,000 union members and replaced them with military air traffic controllers. The New York Times reported the fallout of his action as follows: "More than any other labor dispute of the past three decades, Reagan's confrontation  with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or Patco, undermined  the bargaining  power of American workers and their labor unions. It also polarized  our politics in ways that prevent us from addressing the root of our economic  troubles: the continuing stagnation of incomes despite rising corporate profits and   worker productivity" (McCartin, 2011, para. 2). The crippling of unions and the erosion of the middle class can be traced to that day.

   Economists and political commentators  all agree that the US economy has stagnated and the middle class has eroded over the last 35 years. I assert that this is due to the fact that union membership  and strength has dropped below the critical mass of about 25% of the workforce. It is not a coincidence  that this began in the early 80's. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the continued decline of Union membership: "The number of employed  union members has declined by 2.9 million since 1983. During the same time, the number of all wage and salary workers grew from 88.3 million to 133.7 million. Consequently,  the union membership rate was 20.1 percent in 1983 and declined to 11.1 percent in 2015" (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016, p. 2, para. 1).

   In the Pew Research graph above, the effects of the government's betrayal of the union movement  and the resultant erosion of the middle class is illustrated. The lower yellow line represents the wages workers actually earned.  The upper green line adjusts those earnings for inflation (the reduced purchasing  power of each dollar).  As you can see, real earnings increased about 10% from 1964 to 1972, but the 1974 and 1979 recessions  erased those gains. Since the disastrous events of 1981, there have been NO gains in real earning power for most workers.

   The most profound work unions do is to fight day by day for worker safety, to prevent tragedies such as those that have befallen Local12-591. Whether pulling blinds, valving out exchangers,  or unheading  a coker, all refinery jobs are risky. In 1998, we lost USW 12-591 members Wayne Dowe, Jim Berlin, Warren "Woody" Fry, and Ted Cade after a total power failure when they were unheading  a coke drum; a giant fireball was sent up the structure. In 2010, we lost USW 12-591 members Dan Aldridge, Matt Bowen, Matt Gumbel, Darrin Heines, Kathryn Powell, and Donna Van Dreummel to an explosion  and fire as a heat exchanger catastrophically failed during a maintenance  operation. We also pay tribute to Jerry Canell (1955), Ed Stocker (1979), Earl Staneck (1979), Bob Owings (1988), Jeff Heidingsfelder  (1992), and Tracy Giles (1996) who lost their lives just doing their jobs.

   When unionism was gaining strength and membership, America's middle class blossomed.  Gains included a 40-hour work week, safer working conditions, family medical coverage, paid sick leave, retirement benefits, and better pay. It took 80 years of the middle   class standing together to earn the many job benefits we all enjoy today. Only by nurturing unions, will America again prosper.


Mccartin, J. A. (2011, August 02). The Strike That Busted Unions. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/03/opinion/reagan-vs-patco-the-strike-that-busted-unions.html

Union membership  rate in 2015 about half the 1983 rate. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26,2017, from https://www.bls.gov/spotlighU2016/union-membership-in-the-united-states/