My grandparents were immigrants. My paternal grandfather escaped from a Tzarist prison camp. According to family legend, he was the only one who escaped who got out of Russia alive. He settled first in Philadelphia, where my father was born, and then moved to Los Angeles. He joined the ILGW, and became a shop steward. He bought a car, and a house. He became part of the middle class. His son--my father--went to a state university--UCLA--and eventually became a college professor of English, one of seven or eight languages my grandfather spoke.
This is not an unusual story. It happened tens of millions of times. It is how the American middle class was made. It wasn't capitalism that did it. Capitalism was doing just fine with a relatively tiny middle class of managers, professionals and small business owners. Well, except for that whole Great Depression thing. And repeated "panics" throughout the 1800s, as they called them back then.
No, it wasn't capitalism that made the modern American middle class.
It was unions.
Money wasn't all they brought. There was dignity. Pride. Security. Respect. Solidarity. All those intangibles were extremely important. And guess what? Money spoke to all of them, as well.
We all know that unions aren't as strong as they used to be. But how many of us realize that they are still creating America's middle class? The difference between a union and a non-union job doing exactly the same sort of work averages more than 25%. And for Latinos it's double that: 50%.
One example of that is the relationship of laws allowing for stronger unions, rates of unionization, and rates of pay. This can be seen in the following chart, also from the same section of the AFL-CIO website:
And, finally, you can see the difference that working union makes by comparing pay across a wide range of occupations:
This is just a taste of the tangible difference that unions make. The tangible difference is the easiest to measure. But it's the intangible differences that are the greatest. Without the strength, unity and security that union solidarity provide, everything a working family has is always at risk, even the bonds of family. Parents can work all their lives providing for their children, only to see everything swept awy by forces beyond their control. This happened repeatedly to millions of families throughout the 19th century, even though it was a century of fantastic economic growth overall.
Unions have helped to make that world utterly foreign to us--even for non-union workers, who enjoy many benefits and protections that organized workers helped to secure... such as Social Security and Medicare. And yet, that world of radical insecurity could well return again, if we forget what it took to put an end to it, what it took to create the world we know now....
A world infinitely far from the Tzarist prison camp that my grandfather escaped from as a young man.