“Show Me the Money,” Wage Stagnation Among Workers in the United States

by Ralph Scharnau

The stock market breaks records, banks have nicely recovered from the Great Recession, unemployment hovers at historic lows, and the economy hums along. This idyllic picture masks the struggles of ordinary workers. They face a variety of menacing workplace pressures.

The single most daunting statistic is that worker pay has remained stagnant when
adjusted for inflation since the mid-1980s. For most Americans, a key measure of economic growth—pay growth—still lags behind pre-recession levels. Low income levels exist for many wage earners in a range of service sector occupations from fast foods to retail sales. Those employed in manufacturing and technology businesses also face employers reluctant to raise wages and salaries. Working class and middle class employees often confront bosses hostile to demands for improving wages.

More and more people now work two or even three jobs just to pay for food, housing,
child care, and transportation. They want full-time work but can only find part-time positions. Many live paycheck to paycheck and bankruptcy looms in the event of a medical crisis, higher mortgage/rent and tax payments, or car repair bills. The chasm between those who luxuriate in gated communities and those hounded at their rickety gates by bill collectors continues to widen.

In an era of advancing technology and global competition, risk has shifted from business
to workers. Furthermore, millions are still either unemployed or underemployed. Ironically the very people whose labor creates wealth suffer the most. Worker distress contributes to greater food banks usage and rising suicide rates.

The party of Trump gives big tax breaks to the rich and reduces workplace protections for
workers. When the Trump administration rolls back manufacturing regulations, it brings greater exposure to toxic chemicals and other workplace hazards. The list of workplace abuses also include wage theft, and refusal to pay minimum wages/overtime pay.

A 2015 in-depth study of American workers, ages 25-71, shows that nearly one in five
face a hostile or threatening work environment. On the job dangers can include sexual
harassment and bullying. Nearly three quarters say they spend at least a fourth of their time on jobs requiring intense and physically repetitive labor with little prospect for advancement.

Income differences appear along gender and racial lines. Men make more money than
women even if the job classification, skill and education levels are similar. The jobless and pay rates for black Americans persist at twice that of white Americans. Black women have twice the unemployment rate of whites, and the highest rates of involuntary part-time employment compared to all others.

Not content to just control workplaces, some employers want to eliminate workers’ right
to organize and thereby eliminate unions. They hire union-busting law firms to intimidate
workers. Unions and their allies are fighting back with street demonstrations, strikes, and
lobbying. Some unionized workers have formed alliances with environmental groups, seeking a clean environment and good jobs

Today just under 15% of the American labor force hold union membership. Those
without the protection of a union are considered “at will” employees with no workplace rights except the right to quit. But unions provide a counterweight to rising inequality and management power by giving employees a collective bargaining voice in their wages, hours, and working conditions.

American workers today face a series of challenges often imposed by hostile employers
and conservative politicians. Unions offer a labor-centered way to address structural and policy changes that help to expand economic opportunity. Unionists believe that all workers deserve living wages, decent hours, and humane working conditions.

Ralph Scharnau
August 31, 2017

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