It’s harder to reach the American dream if you’re reaching all alone

By Robert L. Borosage
August 29, 2014


“Hours of chaos” is how the New York Times described the work reality of more and more Americans. It highlighted Jannette Navarra, a Starbucks barrista, who is regularly forced to work part-time with fluctuating hours. She usually gets her work schedule three days ahead of the workweek, so she is always scrambling to arrange childcare for her son. Any hope Navarra has of advancing by pursuing a degree is shattered by her inability to schedule classes.

These sorts of lousy jobs are the increasing reality for many American workers. They are labeled “contingent” workers — part-time, temporary, on contract, on call. They generally earn lower wages than fulltime employees, with little or no benefits, and constant insecurity. They now represent one-third, perhaps as much as 40 percent of the workforce.

The Times focused on new technology that allows Starbucks to micro-manage worker hours to fit outlet demand. This really isn’t about technology, however. It’s about power. Workers have less power in the workplace in part because of continued high unemployment. When jobs are scarce, workers have learned to accept what they can get.

It’s is also due to the absence of a worker voice on the job because of the virtual disappearance of unions, particularly in the private sector.

No job is inherently marginal. Lousy jobs in places like non-union Phoenix are middle-class jobs in unionized New York City. Economist Robert Kuttner, writing in the American Prospect, described the very different reality of New York hotel workers, represented by the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. New York employers, faced with variable demand for rooms, would also want workers to be on-call. But as Kuttner notes, in this case workers have a union to speak up for them. Through tough negotiations the union has guaranteed workers regular hours, decent pay (a housekeeper gets roughly $50,000 a year), paid vacation, pension and health benefits

Commentators often blame globalization and technology for America’s growing inequality and declining middle class. The former forces workers to compete with low-wage workers across the world; the latter displaces low-skilled workers with machines. What is missing in this scenario, however, is the central force behind the creation of America’s middle class — strong, independent unions.

Describing the decline of high-paying jobs without focusing on the decline of unions is like describing why an airplane can’t deliver goods — the runway is too short, the weather is bad — without noting that a major engine is broken.

Evidence of the importance of unions is overwhelming. Due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, wartime mobilization and the need for “labor peace,” unions came out of World War Two representing more than a third of the private labor force. At the workplace, unions negotiated wage, benefit and work standards, helping to spread good pay, pensions, health benefits, paid vacations, and overtime pay across the economy. Non-union employers had to compete with those standards to keep good workers and avoid the threat of organizing.

In the political arena, unions provided a powerful voice for full-employment policies, raising the minimum wage, fair labor standards, Social Security and Medicare, affordable housing, public education, progressive taxes and more. They were an affective counterbalance to corporate lobbies and big money in politics.

For 30 years, America grew together. Wages on the bottom went up faster than those at the top, and a broad middle class was created. Wages rose with productivity — as workers gained a decent share of the profits and efficiency they helped create.

None of this was easy. It took often tough negotiations, strikes, organizing drives and brutal struggles to make progress.

And labor’s victories were far from complete. The South passed laws that made sustaining unions virtually impossible. Seasonal, agricultural and many low wage jobs were left out of protection.

Yet, as unions fared, so fared the middle class. When union membership stalled, and then declined as a percentage of the workforce, the middle class lost ground and the rich captured a far greater percentage of the income growth. Productivity and profits continued to rise, but workers no longer gained a fair share.

America started to grow apart. Today, with less than 7 percent of the private workforce represented by a union, the share of national income going to workers is near record lows. The share going to corporate profits is at record highs.

Yet, for many today, unions are regarded as an outmoded part of an old economy — a horse-drawn buggy in a mach 10 world. But as inequality hits new extremes, and more and more workers are forced into low-wage jobs, this seems risible. The need for workers to have a larger voice at the workplace and in our politics is clear. And workers express the desire to gain representation.

Some attribute the union decline to globalization. It is true that unions flourished when the United States dominated the world coming out of World War Two. Once other countries recovered and began to compete, global corporations starting shipping good jobs abroad in search of cheaper labor.

But globalization isn’t an act of nature. Its terms are defined by tax, trade and corporate laws. Germany, among other advanced industrial countries, has strong unions and a strong middle class — while making itself into an export powerhouse.

U.S. unions declined in part because they confronted unrelenting attack by corporations, aided and abetted by conservative politicians. Corporate lobbies largely wrote the rules of globalization. They launched aggressive “right-to-work” campaigns to undermine unions and their leaders. They fought to weaken labor law enforcement at the federal and state level. They used the threat of moving factories to a state with fewer work regulations or abroad against workers looking to organize.

Yet Unions can also bear some of the blame. They devoted too few resources to organizing new workers. Corruption and scandals provided grist for corporate lobbyists. Liberals’ attention focused more on the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s — civil rights, environmental regulations, women’s rights, anti-war efforts. They didn’t mobilize to defend unions against the political assaults.

As for the New Democrats, this more conservative wing of the party increasingly scorned unions as outmoded in the economy, and unnecessary to the Democratic coalition.

What’s clear is that in today’s workplace, the rules are rigged against workers. Deprived of a voice at work in a high unemployment economy, they have little bargaining power — and corporations are increasingly willing and able to exploit that. This is one reason why median household incomes have fallen in the five years after the Great Recession — even as corporate profits (and CEO pay) have soared to new heights.

Turning this around will take new forms of political organizing. Democrats must once more make empowering workers central to their program.

In Los Angeles, for example, the city government has used its procurement and zoning powers to exact pro-worker jobs agreements with contractors — with decent wages and adherence to fair labor standards.

Meanwhile, new forms of worker organizations will have to be invented to respond to the modern workplace — where workers work at one company but are paid by another, as with many temporary workers. The fast-food walkouts, supported by broad coalitions of community groups, offer an early example.

Rebuilding a broad American middle class will be difficult. One thing is clear, however. We won’t be able to revive widely shared prosperity without strengthening the voice of workers at the workplace and in our politics. What was once scorned as an archaic leftover of an old economy is now clearly a vital ingredient to reviving American democracy – and the American dream.


PHOTO: Jon Brooks of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 617 holds aloft a worker’s hardhat as participants take their seats for the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group? There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Many thanks

Wonderful blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any suggestions? Thanks a lot!

Greetings from Carolina! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided to browse your blog on my iphone during lunch break. I enjoy the info you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m surprised at how fast your blog loaded on my mobile .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, superb site!

Hello! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any issues with hackers? My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing a few months of hard work due to no backup. Do you have any methods to prevent hackers?

Hi! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could find a captcha plugin for my comment form? I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one? Thanks a lot!

Yes! Finally something about %keyword1%.|

Great looking website. Think you did a lot of your very own coding.|

At this time I am ready to do my breakfast, once having my breakfast coming again to read further news.|

Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

Howdy! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could get a captcha plugin for my comment form? I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having trouble finding one? Thanks a lot!

Heya fantastic website! Does running a blog such as this take a massive amount work? I have virtually no expertise in computer programming but I was hoping to start my own blog soon. Anyhow, should you have any recommendations or tips for new blog owners please share. I know this is off subject nevertheless I just had to ask. Thanks a lot!

Awesome blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally confused .. Any recommendations? Kudos!

I am really enjoying the theme/design of your web site. Do you ever run into any web browser compatibility issues? A couple of my blog visitors have complained about my site not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Chrome. Do you have any tips to help fix this issue?

Have you ever considered publishing an e-book or guest authoring on other sites? I have a blog based upon on the same information you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my viewers would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e mail.

Admiring the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you provide. It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed information. Great read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

Greetings! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new project in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a outstanding job!

Remarkable! Its really remarkable paragraph, I have got much clear idea regarding from this article.|

Hello, its pleasant piece of writing on the topic of media print, we all understand media is a wonderful source of information.|

Wonderful beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your web site, how can i subscribe for a blog site? The account aided me a acceptable deal. I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided bright clear concept|