Unions won the benefits we take for granted now

By Donald C. Royse

It’s true. We can look back to a better time in America.

Go back about four generations, to the period from 1900 to 1930. During that time America grew by leaps and bounds, without real taxation or regulation, and the Mellons and Carnegies grew enormously rich, like the modern day Bill Gates and the Koch brothers.

Their success was shared by small business owners and managers and tradesmen who made up maybe 25 percent of the population.

The population on the economic ladder below them were farmers, miners, stonemasons, carpenters and other folks involved in labor. These folks often lived out of their gardens, raised their own animals, even made their own tools. They had little money.

This was the environment in which the small middle class could have beautiful large houses with lovely woodwork — the 70- to 100-year-old houses we see in towns and cities across America were provided by cheap labor.

Like Europe, the United States had an extremely wealthy upper class, a small middle class and a very poor lower class, which was a large majority of the population. The survival status of the lower class was marginal. If the weather turned on them, most would experience hunger or were forced to survive on the simplest diet.

When both the weather and the irresponsible Wall Street markets turned on the lower class starting in 1929 and continuing past 1940, most of the lower class experienced privation. Sometimes those folks didn’t even think of themselves as poor, because most everyone they knew were in the same boat.

Then Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd president of the United States in 1932. Although he was a scion of one of America’s richest families, he realized that so many people so hungry and living in such dire poverty was a real crisis for all the country.

His plan for the country was called the New Deal. He established the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and developed a progressive income tax with the Revenue Act of 1935. For this his rich fellow Americans literally and loudly cursed him.

He also established the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It gave workers the right and some power to organize.

Through tremendous struggle five important things were accomplished. The first was the 40-hour work week. The second was the right to represent and negotiate for fair wages. The third was the end of child labor and education for children to age 16 to establish literacy. The fourth was unions won widespread employer-based health coverage, which is generally the best health insurance circumstance today. And the fifth was the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

There are other important benefits of unions, and all of them were won by the struggles of organized labor, not by government or business or any other entity.

The result was the largest middle class our country has ever known from about 1950-’75.

Donald C. Royse is a member of The Dominion Post’s Community Advisory Board.

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