Victor Tan Chen, Atlantic - When it comes to explaining American economic trends, it is important to remember how critical a role manufacturing and unions have played in the building—and now dismantling—of a strong middle class. For generations, factories provided good jobs to people who never went to college, allowing families—first white ethnic immigrants, and then others—to be upwardly mobile. Bringing together large numbers of people under a single roof, factory jobs were also relatively easy to organize. As the sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld have argued, unions at their prime helped create a “moral economy” in which wages rose both in firms with unions and those without them, and in which the average worker had a notable voice—however compromised back then by nativism and other exclusionary tendencies—lobbying on their behalf in Washington.
But in the late ’90s—the beginning of the crisis period that Case and Deaton identify—the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. dropped dramatically. Intensified by free-trade deals such as NAFTA, the hollowing-out of American industry then was much greater, in terms of the absolute number of jobs lost, than what the country experienced during its first wave of deindustrialization.
Twenty years ago, union membership—in decline since the ’60s—fell to a level not seen since the Great Depression. For various reasons, it became much harder to pursue the sorts of collective action that unions once cultivated throughout the economy—that is, banding together to convince companies and governments to treat employees better. Free trade and automation undercut the bargaining positions of the working class. Political leaders, bankrolled by the wealthy, rolled back the interventionist policies of the New Deal and postwar period. Corporations, once relatively tolerant of unions, tapped a cottage industry of anti-union consultants and adopted unseemly tactics to crush any organizing drives in their workplaces.
As organized labor in this country has withered, an extreme individualism has stepped in as the alternative—a go-it-alone perspective narrowly focused on getting an education and becoming successful on one’s own merit. This works well for some, but for others—especially the two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 who don’t have a bachelor’s degree—it often means getting mired in an economy of contract work, low pay, and few, if any, benefits. These prospects suggest that this is an age of diminished expectations for the working class.