Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

When workers exercise power together, wealth is shared more evenly

More than anything else, organized labor, collective bargaining, and the willingness to go out on strike created the American middle class.

Verizon workers’ 45-day strike improved job security and scheduling, halted outsourcing call-center jobs to low-wage workers overseas, increased wages, and gave the protection of collective bargaining for the first time to workers in seven Verizon retail stores.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Donald Trump is promising to “Make America Great Again.” Well, all over America and around world workers are not waiting for Trump to take office; instead they are standing up for themselves, walking out, and demanding justice.

Jeff Kolnick

On May 27, a massive coalition of unions and allies persuaded the Minneapolis City Council to pass an ordinance that will guarantee workers paid sick time to care for themselves or a loved one. On June 1, 39,000 Verizon workers returned to work after a 45-day strike that improved job security and scheduling, halted outsourcing call-center jobs to low-wage workers overseas, increased wages, and gave the protection of collective bargaining for the first time to workers in seven Verizon retail stores. This was the largest strike in the United States since 2011.

On June 7, 4,800 nurses in Minnesota voted to reject a contact offer and authorize a strike over changes in their health plan that would save their employer $10 million and would amount to a 15 percent pay cut for union nurses. Then there is the ongoing transportation strike in France over new laws introduced by the socialist government that would make it easier to fire workers, increase the work week, and cap severance payments. And in 300 cities on six continents, service workers are striking to get living wages. This movement for justice by low-wage workers has even reached Minnesota.

Rise and decline of the middle class

More than anything else, organized labor, collective bargaining, and the willingness to go out on strike created the American middle class. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the 34 years between 1947 and 1980, the United States averaged nearly 300 strikes a year, while in the 35 years between 1981 and 2015 we averaged only 36 strikes. And it is since 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers and thus declared war on organized labor, that the decline of the U.S. middle class began with a massive and ongoing shift in income and wealth from the 99 percent to the 1 percent. It is worth noting that the air traffic controllers union endorsed President Reagan in 1980, only to get stabbed in the back.

Article continues after advertisement

The statistics above leave out the massive number of strikes that occurred after the end of World War II and into 1946. These strikes set the stage for the transformation of an impoverished American working class into the vaunted American middle class. Historian Jeremy Brecher points out that in 1946 alone, as many as 4.9 million workers from all sorts of professions walked off the job. To put that in perspective, between 1947 and 2017, the next largest number of workers to strike in a single year was 2.75 million people in 1957. Brecher noted that the 16 months after VJ Day was the closest the United States has ever come to a national general strike. Legendary business analyst Peter F. Drucker, writing at the time, noted that, “it was on the whole not the [union] leadership which forced the workers into the strike but worker pressure that forced a strike upon reluctant leadership.” 

Why do strikes matter? What was gained for American workers during this period of frequent and effective work stoppages? Simply put, it was the creation of the American middle class. Between 1946 and 1955, as a result of the willingness of workers to exercise power and to sacrifice, workers won many of the features we now consider part of the American Dream. In these years, workers won cost-of-living adjustments and wage increases on top of that. They won a written promise to share in the profits generated by improved worker productivity. They won paid vacations, sick days, employer paid health insurance, fully funded pensions, and guaranteed supplemental unemployment insurance to help working people climb into the middle class by cushioning the uncertainty associated with annual layoffs. These changes, won through collective bargaining, public education campaigns, organizing, and by skillfully using the strike, created the middle class because many of these benefits were passed on to workers without union contracts.

Economic security for hard work

According to historians Robert Zieger and Gilbert Gall, visionary labor leaders like Philip Murray and Walter Reuther sought to use the power of organized labor to transform the lives of American workers by guaranteeing them economic security in exchange for their hard work. They wrote: “rising wages left important needs of modern workers untouched. Over the years mass production industries had developed hiring and layoff policies geared largely to the industries’ short-term needs. What of the worker facing mortgage payments, installment loan demands, and college expenses for his children. Did not he or she have as much need for long term financial planning as the largest corporations?” I guess that’s what it really means to “Make America Great Again!”

But today, we live in a different sort of climate. Today, there is a relentless push to turn all jobs into contingent or temporary work. Today employers are desperately shedding themselves of any responsibility toward their employees. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that in 2010, some 40 percent of American workers were contingent, meaning they have no job security. In 2005, that number stood at around 30 percent. The report [PDF] concluded that Hispanic workers are disproportionally contingent and that most contingent workers are unsatisfied with their jobs and benefits.

 The median age of contingent workers is nearly 41, and almost 17 percent of contingent workers have some college education. Indeed, many contingent workers have significant graduate education as by some estimates, 75 percent of all college professors are contingent workers [PDF]. According to Forbes Magazine, contingent workers experience significantly higher rates of poverty, extremely low annual incomes, greater job instability, less access to employer paid health insurance, higher reliance on public assistance, and no access to unemployment insurance. Could this retreat toward job insecurity be the result of a decline in worker power?  

Strong man or collective strength?

Some Americans are counting on a strong man, the “big boss” himself, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to save the day by building a wall, deporting undocumented immigrants, denying visas to Muslims, and bring jobs back to America. Trump’s solution to the problems of working Americans is to put their faith in a billionaire and blame those who have the wrong “heritage” or worship the “wrong” religion.

In the 1940s and 1950s, through their collective strength, American workers forged a powerful new arrangement with their employers, turning contingent work into secure work where ordinary families could build wealth while contributing to the nation’s strength. They did not expect an employer to save the day. Rather, they organized and saved the day for themselves. They learned that when workers combined to exercise power, the wealth of America would be shared more evenly.

Focusing on differences only divides us. Only when we are united, when we believe in one another, when we stand together, can we truly make America great again. 

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at