Labor Day Celebrates the American Trifecta of Robust Unions, a Thriving Middle Class, and a Booming Economy

Supporters attending a labor rally hold signs supporting rights to unionize at the United Steelworkers union headquarters in Pittsburgh.

See the other stories on this trending page for a review of progressive and conservative ideas and actions related to workplace fairness, the economy, and the middle class.

It’s no coincidence that as unions in our country are seeing their numbers shrink, the middle class is shrinking, too, and our economy is struggling to gain traction.

Nearly 60 years ago when union membership was at its zenith—with more than 35 percent of American workers carrying union cards in their purses and wallets—the country’s middle class was rapidly expanding. Americans with good union-secured benefits and wages were able to purchase homes, save for college, and buy new cars, appliances, and an array of U.S.-manufactured goods, which in turn drove a strong and ever-growing economy. During this period the size of the U.S. economy almost tripled, growing from $1.7 trillion in 1947 to $4.9 trillion in 1973. And the middle class flourished, receiving an average of 52 percent of the nation’s income.

Today, in contrast, only 11.9 percent of American workers are union members, effectively closing the door of entry to the middle class to millions. This dims the American Dream for those shut out and looking in, and makes life much more precarious for those trying to hang on to their middle-class status. As two CAP Action Fund products—“Unions Are Good for the American Economy” and “Unions Make the Middle Class”—note, one of the reasons we are finding it so hard to boost our tepid economic growth is because workers lack the necessary purchasing power and the middle class is not strong enough to drive our economy.

Despite the obvious connection between strong unions, a strong middle class, and an even stronger America, conservative lawmakers across the country have unleashed a no-holds-barred attack on unions. They’re going after public-sector workers, chipping away at collective bargaining rights, and pushing right (not) to work (for a fair wage) laws, which has resulted in the underpinnings being kicked out from under our economy and, to a great extent, the American middle class.

Unions provide good-paying jobs with good benefits, which prevents families from going broke due to unforeseen medical emergencies and enable them to save for future prosperity. Just as importantly, unions protect workers from the dangers of an unsafe work environment or the injustice of an unfair workplace, as highlighted in a newly released CAP report, “Gay and Transgender Discrimination in the Public Sector.”

This Labor Day, as we celebrate the untold contributions of America’s workers and its unions throughout our nation’s history, let’s not lose sight of the fact that unionization is key to America’s future and strengthening our middle class.

See the other stories on this trending page for a review of progressive and conservative ideas and actions related to the workplace fairness, the economy, and the middle class.

Carl Chancellor is Senior Editor at the Center for American Progress.