The long-term outlook for Americans who work for a living is indeed bleak. Doubtless, there will be some ups and downs, but an unprecedented combination of factors makes it likely that the downward trend will continue for them. For most people, the future promises lower quality jobs, at lower pay rates, with degraded working conditions, and fewer benefits. They can also anticipate reduced retirement income, and less comprehensive medicare. Financial insecurity and unemployment are likely to be regular features of their lives.
The prospects are quite different for big corporations and the
super-rich. The beneficiaries of the factors hurting the general
population, are doing just fine, and are likely to continue to
prosper. In general, it seems likely that the US will increasingly
resemble third world countries such as Mexico, characterized by a
small, wealthy elite dominating a population of poor people, with a
layer of people clinging to middle class status. One big difference
is that we will probably remain the world's foremost military
If this appraisal is not dismal enough for some people, I could
discuss the assault on the Bill of Rights and our democracy in
general, the real danger of a US police state, ongoing US military
actions all over the world, the grossly neglected climate change
threat, and other environmental and health problems. But, in this
essay, I will confine myself to justifying the assertions made in
the opening paragraphs, and suggesting how we might be able to turn
Initially, the situation for American workers was not too bad.
In the early days, a large portion of Americans were independent
farmers, an option open to many, since land was cheap. There were
numerous small enterprises, each employing just a few people.
Examples were stables, blacksmith shops, small general stores,
barber shops, small stage coach companies. There was no great
social gap between workers and employers. Dissatisfied employees
were usually able to find other jobs. Those who failed in this
could try farming.
Eventually, by the end of the 19th century, opportunities for
starting minimal farms diminished significantly, and a large
proportion of jobs were with large corporations operating
railroads, mines, textile mills, steel mills, etc. Negotiations
between a worker and a corporation over pay and working conditions
were very different from what they had been between an apprentice
and a master blacksmith. Immigration increased, bringing in people
willing to work harder for less pay. The net result was not a happy
one for most workers.
This led to the formation of unions, which employers did not
take kindly to [Unger-Unions]. Violence, to the point of gun battles,
resulted when failed negotiations led to strikes. With the
government almost always siding with employers, it was rough
sledding for most workers and their unions. The fading out of the
farming alternative did not help.
The onset of the great depression, and the birth of the New
Deal, was a major turning point. Under the Roosevelt
Administration, the government attitude toward organized labor
changed from hostility to mild support, characterized by the NLRA
(National Labor Relations--or Wagner--Act). This, combined with the
industrial surge associated with WWII, led to a huge growth of
effective labor unions, that resulted in relatively good times for
working people. Even those not in unions (the
majority) benefited, as many employers improved pay and working
conditions in efforts to stave off the unionization of their
The first step in the reversal of labor's good fortune was the
1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which undermined the
beneficial effects of the NLRA. Gains for workers slowed, and then
ceased. Things have been going downhill for workers ever since.
What is going wrong?
The process of getting an employer to recognize a union has become increasingly difficult since 1947. In addition to the effect of the Taft-Hartley Act, appointees to the National Labor Relations Board have become increasingly unsympathetic to union organizers. Court decisions have weakened the union-supporting features of the NLRA. Employers routinely hire companies specializing in union busting, and such companies have developed a great deal of expertise. The result of these factors is that relatively few union organizing campaigns have succeeded during the past several decades. Union membership in the private sector (about 6.6%) is thus at a low not seen for over a century [Greenhouse] [BLS].
So the great majority of American workers must negotiate with
employers, often large corporations, as individuals. Public sector
workers are better off (35.9% union membership--mainly teachers,
police, and firefighters), but not by much; their unions are weak
and increasingly under attack.
Advances in technology have always eliminated jobs via automation, and this continues to happen [Unger-benefits].
From the start of the industrial age, a standard technique for
depressing wages has been the importing of workers from low-pay
countries. This practice continues today and is an important factor
in minimizing the income of workers ranging from hotel chamber
maids and farm workers, to nurses and engineers [ Unger-Immigration] . Congress is now debating
legislation to further bolster this process, including an amnesty
for millions of illegal (the politically correct term is
"undocumented") immigrants, increasing immigration quotas, and
further increasing the number of temporary visas and green cards
for engineers, programmers, and others.
The combination of automation, increased immigration, and the
demise of unions would suffice to put most workers back to their
lowly status prior to WWI. But there is another, new,
unprecedented, and powerful factor, not involving classic business
cycle fluctuations, that is further exacerbating the downward
Until roughly the late seventies, manufacturing was a
distinctive feature of the US economy. It grew continually (with
fluctuations due to business cycles). The corporate elite then
apparently decided that they could make more money by taking
advantage of cheap labor in other countries, such as China. They
began shutting down US factories, and either opening new factories
in low-pay countries, or contracting to have products made for them
by manufacturers in those countries.