In contrast to the story told by free-market advocates, the union activists asserted that they had been dispossessed, which they cast as a threat to the United States as a Republic because it stripped them of their rights and independence as free white male citizens. The defense of labor was thereby equated with the defense of American republican government (Voss 1993, pp. 29-36). Although there were strikes by carpenters, shoe binders, textile workers, and tailors in defense of what they claimed to be their republican rights, the attempts to organize in any serious way ended abruptly with the onset of the nation's first industrial depression in 1837. After all, workers in a slack economy stand even less of a chance than workers in a strong economy when few people are unemployed. Many local craft organizations were disbanded. The efforts at unionization were not revived until after the Civil War.
Swift to change the labor movement has never been. But if the new high-tech and service sectors seemed beyond its reach in 1989, so did the mass production industries in 1929. And, as compared to the old afl, organized labor is today much more diverse and broadly based: 40 percent of its members are white-collar workers, 30 percent are women, and the percent who are black signify a greater representation than in the general population and a greater rate of participation than by white workers ( percent compared to percent). In the meantime, however, the movement’s impotence has been felt. “The collapse of labor’s legislative power facilitated the adoption of a set of economic policies highly beneficial to the corporate sector and to the affluent,” wrote analyst Thomas B. Edsall in 1984. And, with collective bargaining in retreat, declining living standards of American wage-earning families set in for the first time since the Great Depression. The union movement became in the 1980s a diminished economic and political force, and, in the Age of Reagan, this made for a less socially just nation.