Have shrinking union rolls eroded the middle class? (VIDEO)

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Wednesday that as union membership declines in the US, so does the number of people able to stay in the middle class.

Michael Bonfigli / The Christian Science Monitor
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis speaks at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Aug. 31.

A continued decline in union membership in the US has led to an erosion of the American middle class, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Wednesday.

As the portion of the population that belongs to a union has declined, “there has been an erosion of people that have been able to stay in the middle class. The way I see, it is that unions have helped to keep people in the middle class," Secretary Solis said. She spoke at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters.

Earlier this year the Labor Department reported that union membership continued to slide last year. In 2010, the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier.

The number of workers belonging to a union declined by 612,000 to 14.7 million. For purposes of comparison, in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.

The Labor Secretary spoke of her own experience with the union movement’s ability to provide workers a middle class life. “I am a product of that coming from a family, a working class family that was able to have those benefits, the health care ... [I] see my parents now living on retirement and know how important it is to level the playing field," she said.

The Secretary’s mother, a native of Nicaragua, worked on an assembly line and her dad, a Mexican immigrant, was a Teamsters’ Union shop steward.

With Labor Day approaching, Solis noted that even in its diminished state the labor movement continues to strive “to level the playing field for everyone, for every group. And to me that’s kind of been a part of our American makeup ... and unfortunately some people will disagree with me on that.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.