Reflections On Labor Day 2016

labor movementLabor Day means much more than sales events and holiday excursions. The day honors the men and women who provide the work that fuels our economy.

Reports of falling unemployment, growing wages, and rising consumer confidence in the United States mask harsh economic realities for millions of people. According to a recent Pew public opinion poll, 54 percent of respondents describe the national economy as bad. Workplace issues like downsizing, speedup, outsourcing, privatization, capital flight, and unsafe working conditions amount to direct assaults on workers’ livelihood.

While the earnings of the wealthy pull away from everyone else, the income of the working class and middle class shrink and more people slip into poverty. In their 2015 book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer found the appalling figure applied to 1.5 million households.

In Iowa, a recent study by the Iowa Policy Project, found that nearly 20 percent of families earn less than a self-sufficient income despite the presence of one or more full-time wage earners. The study also identified single parents and families in rural regions as most likely to fall short of a basic standard of living.

Wage stagnation is a universal problem, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. In addition, two-thirds of low-wage employees, especially those in the food service industry, suffer from some form of wage theft. Traditional full-time employment has also declined even as the total number of lower-paying nontraditional jobs—contingent, subcontracted, temp, on-demand—has increased.

Nationwide, just 12 percent of American workers receive paid family leave through their employer. The gender gap continues with women earning less than men. In certain industries like meat and poultry, the work remains exceptionally dangerous.
An estimated 11 million households spend more than half of their income on rent.

There is not a single state where a full time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour can rent an apartment for 30 percent or less of their income.

Workers’ compensation, one of the oldest social insurance programs in the nation, is under attack. As conservative lawmakers in a growing number of states weaken benefits and erect barriers for receiving compensation, the cost of work-related injuries are being shifted onto the backs of workers and the public.

Trade unions have traditionally given agency to those who own no means of production and distribution. They rely on their labor to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, housing, and transportation.

In 1956, a third of the workforce held union membership, which was slightly higher than the share of national income taken in by top earners. In 2013, the figures were 11.2 percent and 47 percent, respectively. Those in the American labor force without the protection of a union are considered “at will” employees with no workplace rights except the right to quit.

Unions provide a recognized and organized counterweight to rising inequality and management power by giving employees a collective bargaining voice in their wages, hours, and working conditions. And polls indicate broad public support for the right of workers to unionize across a range of occupations from manufacturing to fast-food.

The American worker today faces a series of challenges often imposed by large employers and conservative politicians. Unions offer a labor-centered way to address structural and policy changes that help to advance greater equality, expand economic opportunity, and yield universal benefits. Unionists believe that all workers deserve living wages, decent hours, and humane working conditions.

Ralph Scharnau
September 1, 2016

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