Once upon a time, unions were a powerful force on the American political scene. With their political clout they provided a voice for the otherwise voiceless and an avenue through which the average, working American could participate in the political process. Radicals like Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Mother Jones, Bill Haywood, and Sinclair Lewis rallied the working class during their days and laid the groundwork for future movements with their subversive writings, civil disobedience, and brilliant oration, cultivating a force that terrified elites.
When the Depression swept the country, Roosevelt gave in to many demands of organized labor, granting them protections from the excesses of unfettered capitalism, increased power in the workplace, and opportunities for decent-paying jobs. The business class was never keen on granting workers the right to collectively bargain or to influence the political process, but they had no choice.
Corporations and “pro-business” politicians have always feared unions, as they act as a counterweight to corporate dominance of the workplace and the political process. Unions were also, in the decades after the Depression, a key factor in the fair distribution of wealth and income, effectively capping the pay of top executives.
Since around the late 1970s and early 80s, this has all collapsed. Unions came under vicious attack by the Reagan administration while the rich were granted remarkable tax breaks. Conservative politicians used the story of corrupt unions bosses to smear “Big Labor,” often pinning organizers and unionized works as communist sympathizers. As crude as it may appear today, Cold War rhetoric was remarkably successful.
Unions have been on the decline since, and workers have suffered as a result. A report by the Center for American Progress observes that, as union membership falls, so does the income of the middle class.
“In the private sector,” Mike Collins notes, “unionization fell to 6.6%, down from a peak of 35% in the 1950s.”
Up until around 1973, worker compensation rose in lockstep with productivity. No longer. Productivity continues to rise steadily, but wages have flatlined. The result is a federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a wage lower than the minimum wage of 1968, in terms of purchasing power. The Economic Policy Institute notes that, if pay had continued to rise with productivity, the minimum wage would be $18.42.
Those at the top, as you know, are doing rather well. Since 1979, the average annual wage of the top 1% has increased by 149%, as opposed to a meager increase of 16.7% for the bottom 90%.
Particularly striking in terms of inequality is the so-called “recovery” from the Great Recession. In a piece for the New York Times, Justin Wolfers notes that,
“After adjusting for inflation, the average income for the richest 1 percent (excluding capital gains) has risen from $871,100 in 2009 to $968,000 over 2012 and 2013. By contrast, for the remaining 99 percent, average incomes fell by a few dollars from $44,000 to $43,900.”
“That is,” he continues, “so far all of the gains of the recovery have gone to the top 1 percent.”
Some, including economist Emmanuel Saez, have estimated that over 90% of the new income gains during the “recovery” have gone to the top 1%.
Further, this is not entirely unpredictable: Corporate America and Wall Street exert tremendous influence over the political process, warping legislation and ensuring that the “rules” of the market are written with their interests in mind.
Workers are left without a voice. Which is why movements like Fight for 15 are so necessary.
The Democratic establishment has failed us. Bill Clinton dismantled the welfare system and passed a trade accord that shipped jobs overseas and placed downward pressure on wages. President Obama, with his fervent push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is looking to one-up Mr. Clinton; if history is any guide, the TPP — which massive corporations, and not the people, were allowed to view and influence — will be yet another blow to the working class.
Since the call to action embedded in Lewis Powell’s infamous memo, business has been on the offensive; they have, as a result, gained tremendous ground. CEOs of top firms now rake almost 300 times the compensation of average workers, who are often forced to rely on federal assistance for basic necessities. The obscene inequality that has materialized over the past several decades is not the result of inexplicable “forces” of the free market; it is the result of deliberate policy decisions that gut protections for workers and grant the wealthy classes unprecedented access and influence.
Fight for 15 and brave, striking workers are granting the working class a voice in a country that has been overtaken by corporate greed. The strikes and protests that are today reaching mainstream recognition are the result of relentless organizing and activism which must continue if we are to succeed in a fundamental way.
Many have awoken to the uncomfortable truth: Voting for candidates who promise piecemeal reforms can no longer cut it. Rallying behind a leader is not enough; working within a corrupted system can only bring about so much progress. So workers are doing it on their own. All who favor democracy and the rule of law over corporate tyranny have a moral obligation to join the fight, for $15, and for a political revolution that will restore the dignity of workers, save the environment from collapse, and restore genuine democracy.