Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

A Big Squeeze


The editorial board of the Sacramento Bee, my hometown’s only daily newspaper, did it.

They discussed declining income for the U.S. middle class without mentioning labor unions (Editorial: “Middle-class squeeze shows up in retail spending patterns,” Feb. 9, 2014).

Call it a union blackout. Why?

Unions bargain collectively with employers for members’ wages, benefits, and working conditions. Thus, bosses have bottom-line motives to bargain for lower pay with individual employees.

Maybe the Bee’s editors did not get this memo. I doubt it, though.

According to the Bee editorial: “The squeeze in the middle of the department-store industry mirrors the stagnation of middle-class incomes over the last 35 years.” The data fits the narrative of U.S. class polarization.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concurs. “By 2010, the labor share of the bottom 99% of taxpayers had fallen to approximately 50% from just above 60% prior to the 1980s.”

Meanwhile, 11.3% of U.S. wage and salary workers were union members in 2013 versus 20.1% in 1983, according to the Labor Dept. A brief look at what the Bee calls “the department-store industry” and I term “merchant capital” can shed useful light.

Think Wal-Mart Stores Inc. As journalist Arun Gupta writes in Socialist Register 2014, the global giant “accounts for about 13% of the $2.53 trillion U.S. retail market. And 140 million Americans shop at Wal-Mart weekly, more people than voted for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney combined in 2012.”

Wal-Mart began in 1962 and employs 1.4 million Americans now. The company serves as a proxy for the bitter plight of U.S. workers, whose gains from the economy’s productivity have been flowing away from them and to the top of the income chain.

Case in point is Wal-Mart’s low pay, low-price and union-free business model delivers huge riches the Walton family, based in Arkansas. The Waltons’ wealth exceeded that of the bottom 30% of U.S. families in 2007.

By 2010, Walton family wealth had increased to 41.5% of all American families, according to Gupta. Arkansas has a 3.5% rate of union density, above North Carolina (3%), and below Mississippi (3.7%).

Employment struggles in a time of political retreat for most American workers define class struggle. Organized labor, to avoid fatal atrophy, has a role to play in pushing policies and practices for shared prosperity accruing to workers in and out of unions.

The Bee’s editors conclude: “The days of denying the impact of rising income inequality are over. It’s an issue that defines this time.”

Strengthen U.S. labor law. How best to proceed?

Recall the Employee Free Choice Act, an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. With the EFCA, a simple majority of employees (50%) could check a card showing support to join a union at a workplace, replacing the National Labor Relations Board secret-ballot elections.

Under the EFCA, union-free workers could opt for the current election process, but the choice would be theirs to make and not their bosses.

First, however, the EFCA requires enough votes to pass the Senate and House for President Obama to sign it into law, as he promised to.

Calling to close an income gap is one thing. Closing this gap via class-conscious politics that organized labor is a part of—not apart from (think Occupy Wall Street)—is another thing.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 28, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Inside the Invisible Government; War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump
Andrew Levine
The Hillary Era is Coming: Worry!
Gary Leupp
Seven World-Historical Achievements of the Iraq Invasion of 2003
Paul Street
Standing Rock Water-Protectors Waterboarded While the Cleveland Indians Romped
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel: 1984 Everlasting
Michael Brenner
American Foreign Policy in the Post-Trump Era
Luciana Bohne
Crossing the Acheron: Back to Vietnam
Robert Hunziker
The Political Era of Climate Refugees
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution was an Atrocity
Pete Dolack
Work Harder So Speculators Can Get More
Joyce Nelson
Canadians Launch Constitutional Challenge Against CETA
John Laforge
US Uranium Weapons Have Been Used in Syria
Paul Edwards
The Vision Thing ’16
Arshad Khan
Hillary, Trump and Sartre: How Existentialism Disrobes the Major Presidential Candidates
Peter Lee
It’s ON! Between Duterte and America
Joseph Grosso
Starchitects in the City: Vanity Fair and Gentrification
Patrick Carr
Economic Racial Disparity in North Carolina
David Swanson
Public vs. Media on War
Chris Gilbert
Demo Derby in Venezuela: The Left’s New Freewheeling Politics
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution Was an Atrocity
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Russell Mokhiber
Lucifer’s Banker: Bradley Birkenfeld on Corporate Crime in America
Ron Jacobs
Death to the Fascist Insect! The SLA and the Cops
Cesar Chelala
Embargo on Cuba is an Embarrassment for the United States
Jack Smith
And the Winner Is….
Ken Knabb
Beyond Voting: the Limits of Electoral Politics
Matt Peppe
An Alternate Narrative on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
James Rothenberg
Water Under the Bridge
Louis Yako
Remembering Rasul Gamzatov: The Poet of the People
Brian Cloughley
The US, NATO and the Pope
Louis Proyect
The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake
Martin Billheimer
Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries
October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat