The Middle Class – The 20th century and the rise of labor


Continuing on in the vein of the concept of the “middle class” that politicians and pundits love to banter about. Prior episodes highlighted the rift between the nobles and the serfs that gave rise to the powerful merchant and professional class that was the genesis of the “middle class”.

The formation of the United States, a representational, constitutional republic without a monarchy, was the start of a bold experiment. There was no “official” noble class, but there was recognition that the vote would be tied to “landed” persons (men) who would benevolently choose leaders for the masses.

A nice theory.

Early power was concentrated in the large landholders (often plantation owners in the south, hence the importance of slavery as an institution being enshrined in the Constitution.) But as the industrial revolution played out, money, and with it power shifted to industrial centers in the northeast and midwest. The great equalizer was the development of the railroads. Production no longer needed to be in proximity of the consumers. Pennsylvania became known for steel production with raw ore coming from the iron mines of Minnesota via the great lakes, and coal from Appalachia. Chicago, almost dead center in the country was a way station, and the stockyards that fed the country.

New York gave rise to the financial institution, concentrating power and money in the world’s largest city.

(note: there is a lot of simplification in this portrayal)

The trend was that the professional class (lawyers, merchants, doctors, etc) was what we would call the “middle class”. The “upper class” was dominated by the industrialists, the truly wealthy. The Rockefeller’s, the JP Morgan’s, and the Leland Stanford’s who were barons of their respective industries. The serf class mapped to the labor class.

(note: this is also the origin of the terms “white collar” the professional class, and the “blue collar” the working class)

The ratios were not far different than the medieval split of European classes. The industrialists or upper class was less than 5% of the population. The professional class was ~ 10% of the population, and the vast majority was the poor, powerless, and struggling workers.

The rise of labor

At the turn of the 20th century, conditions were ripe for change. Communism was on the rise in the developing world. The abuses of the upper class industrialists were harder to hide (strike breakers, unsafe work environments, treatment of workers as worse than slaves, exploitation of recent immigrants all were rife). The perception that life was unfair was becoming ingrained, and efforts to undo this unfairness began.

A mighty struggle of labor over management began and was fought in often bloody struggles. Little headway was made until the crash of 1929, and the depression that followed. Populism shifted, the creation of government oversight of regulations for working conditions, and safety, pay and fairness were instituted. Unions grew in power, and were able to collectively bargain for the class of labor as a whole.

Fast forward to WWII and the huge mobilization of production to support the war effort. The industrialists became even more wealthy, but labor built upon their gains, and became a force to be bargained with.

The golden years of labor

In the post war boom, gains scratched from the industrialists were cemented. Demand for goods lead to a truly impressive growth of production in the US as the world rebuilt from the ravishes of WWII.

The demand for labor was never higher, and the unions were immensely successful in negotiating wages and benefits for the new working class. These gains created a massive middle class in America, with participation by a large percentage of the population.

At this time, it was not just possible, but very likely that getting through high school, getting a job at a factory that was stable, safe, and secure, would provide a standard of living that included buying a house, a new car every 3 years, taking vacations annually, and being able to afford to send your children to college, with a nest egg for retirement in addition to the Social Security check.

These golden years gave rise to what politicians today like to call the “Middle Class”.

What happened or is happening to this middle class?

As soon as this era of prosperity began, the capitalist moneyed elite (the upper class) began to fight hard to dismantle the drivers that lead to this prosperity shared by an unprecedented proportion of the population.

Unions were among the first battles. Efforts to weaken them have been constant since the 1950’s, and really picked up at the start of the Reagan presidency. His firing and disbanding of the Air Traffic Controller’s union was the watershed event.

Government protections, enacted in the depths of the depression as part of the social contract and safety net have also been under withering attack.

Today, the trend accelerates. You have Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin essentially castrating the public sector unions, and the rise of the so-called “Right to Work” states that really means that workers have little rights and recourse from abusive employers.


Looking at the latter half of the 20th century and the opening decade of the 21st century, it is clear that the concept of the working “middle class,” blue collar lifestyle was an aberration. It rose when the government intervention in the wake of the Great Depression coincided with the boom in prosperity and productivity post WWII, and has been waning since.

The tide of globalization, the erasing of geographic limitations accelerate the movement of labor to the least costly location, additionally providing lubrication to the decline of the middle class that politicians of both parties lament.

Unfortunately, it is my belief that there is really nothing that can be done to halt the transition. The manufacturing isn’t coming back on shore in quantities to drive the job creation needed, and the rise in the service industry is also being threatened by globalization (see the prices for services on elance to get really depressed.)

There are two choices I see:

  • We as a society allow the bottom 60% of the population to live in destitute poverty, falling back to subsistence farming or panhandling to make ends meet. This is the complete return to the society of the middle ages.
  • We institute some form of guaranteed minimum income. The wealthy, and the professional class will subsidize the vast population to some minimum level of existence.

Unfortunately, the second choice, while very practical, and with the level of automation and production available today ultimately do-able, it will never come to pass. The upper class and the professional class have too much power and influence to allow such a program to pass.

(note: Much of the science fiction I grew up reading posited that the far future there would be ample resources and that the work week would become a fraction of what it is today. That a few hours a week would provide for a fruitful life, with plenty of time for creative endeavors or recreation. I firmly believe that we are at a tipping point where we could begin a transition to a post labor world, and finally ditch the “Protestant Work Ethic” once and for all.)

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By geoffand

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February 2015

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