The last 100 years in America can be broken down in a number of different ways. One could look at social periods defined by each decade, music, fashion. Among these approaches, there is a clearly identifiable trend - a bell curve - that characterizes the overall health and prosperity of the middle and working classes.
In the beginning, Robber Barons essentially branded organized workers as "conspirators." The gap between the haves and have-nots was deplorable, and the idea of workers having rights was like heresy.
As workers began to organize, they generated crazy ideas, like the 8-hour work day and 40-hour week. They insisted on safety inspections for workplaces. The advocated for a minimum wage, and for the prohibition of child-made goods across state lines.
Through Collective Bargaining, groups of organized workers were able to redefine the economic dynamic of the country. Essentially, they created a system of checks and balances that allowed workers to insist on their fair share of a company's profitability and prosperity. Collective Bargaining is the vehicle through which the working masses can advocate for a quality of life and rights in the workplace, and protect themselves from being pitted against one another in an attempt to drive down the cost of labor by trading people for profits.
In the 1960s, the CEO of GM, one of the strongest companies in the country at the time, made less in a year (after adjusting for inflation) than many Hedge Fund managers bring home in their annual holiday bonus today. When union density was strong and collective bargaining prevalent, we, as working and middle class men and women, would not have stood for such thievery. Instead, we'd have united against those who threatened to steal the American Dream away from us, and seek balance in our democracy.
With the de-unionization (not an accident) and restructuring of the American tax system to favor the rich, the middle class prosperity that once characterized our country has all but disappeared, and ironically, the gap between haves and have-nots has never been wider than it is in this post-recession economy.
The American economy over the last 100 years at a macroscopic level basically falls into three major parts, with a strong middle class, highly unionized and protected by Collective Bargaining in the middle, and two frighteningly similar Robber Baron periods on either side.
Sadly, since the writing of the Powell Memo in the early 70s, corporations and the upper class have so effectively implemented the game plan to purchase policy and manipulate the public, that many Americans today are totally misled about which people have truly interrupted their prosperity and which people have devoted their lives to fighting for it.
It is no small coincidence that the same people who fought against Collective Bargaining, also fought against the minimum wage, against workplace safety rights, against FMLA rights for women, and against child labor laws. It is also no coincidence that they outspend workers 300:1 in campaign contributions, or that they control most media outlets. We do not disagree that it may be cheaper to run a business if an employer bore no rights and responsibilities to his or her employees, but to the average union worker like myself, "every man for himself," is not the be-all end-all of what it means to be an American citizen. A close juxtaposition of the growth rate of the middle class during the height of collective bargaining and in the aftermath of trickle-down economics paints a very clear picture.