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Jefferson Cowie On Economic Inequality, Organized Labor And The Working Class

Erin Williams / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis workers on strike to raise the minimum wage.

Jefferson Cowie is a professor in Cornell University’s School of Labor and Industrial Relations teaching courses in labor relations, law and history.  His most recent book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class served as inspiration for Rebecca Gilman’s play, “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976” which is now playing at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.  While Cowie was in St. Louis to headline a panel discussion at Webster University on the 1970s American working class, he sat down with Don Marsh to talk about the state of organized labor and the working class.

Cowie reports that membership in labor unions peaked in the mid 50s when 35 percent of the work force belonged to a union.  That percentage has decreased until levelling off at the current 6 percent membership. There are a number of reasons for the decline including political factors, economic factors, cultural issues and organizational problems with organized labor. 

Says Cowie, “There has been an assault on labor since the mid 70s. That’s really when it began…Labor has basically been playing defense since the early 1980s and they’ve been unable to sort of find some traction, some ground on which to stand to fight off this attack. …They have a big enemy. They have to be prepared to take it on. You can’t just play victim. You have to actually get out there and do something about it but they haven’t been able to find that tactic.”

When unions had larger numbers their members had clout in elections.  Today their impact is in financing elections which is still an economic factor, primarily in the Democratic party.  But the days when they were well organized to get out the vote are gone.

One of the seminal points in the diminished role of labor unions came with President Reagan fired 13,000 members of PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. “Paul Volcker said it was the most important thing that the Reagan administration did.  It set the tone, it set the tenor, it sent signals to the private sector on how they could deal with labor relations in the 1980s,” says Cowie.

The decline of the labor movement has resulted in the lessening of the middle class.  Cowie points out that if one examines a graph of the economy, the point where the top and bottom came together was around 1972. As the top and the bottom separated, what resulted was an extreme level of inequality with stagnations of wages and the decline of the real value of the minimum wage without any real bargaining power and no way for people to address the inequality.

Cowie maintains that inequality is the defining issue of our day. “We now know from public health studies that homicide rates are higher in unequal countries.  Incarceration rates are higher in unequal countries. Education is worse. People are happier in more equal countries.  People live longer in more equal countries. And even the rich live longer in more equal countries.  The more we have polarized ourselves the more we have increased anxiety and stress and over work and all these things that are tearing at the social fabric.”

Cowie points to reports of McDonald's training employees how to get food stamps and studies showing how much it costs to support Walmart workers in California through public subsidies as proof of the cost to the government of the economic inequality. "This is a social issue, a national issue, so it needs a national solution," he says.

Although Cowie is a fan of current AFL-CIO president Rich Trumpka, he says that few people outside the labor organizations are listening to him.  He laments the fact that labor issues don’t get the coverage they once did when every paper had a labor beat.  Today coverage is left primarily to Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times.

Related Event

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Presents Rebecca Gilman's "Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976"
March 14 - 30, 2014
Various Times
Loretto Hilton Performing Arts Center, 130 Edgar Road
(314) 968-4925
RepertoryTheatre of St. Louis Website 

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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Mary Edwards came to St. Louis Public Radio in 1974, just after finishing her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She has served the station in a number of capacities over the years. From 1988-2014 she also taught an undergraduate class in radio production at Webster University. Mary was inducted into the St. Louis Media History Foundation Media Hall of Fame in April, 2017 and received the Gateway Media Literacy Partners' Charles Klotzer Media Literacy Award in 2012. Mary retired from St. Louis Public Radio in 2018, but still serves the station as a St. Louis Symphony Producer.
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