The column looks at the continuing struggles of American workers to secure a decent standard of living.
by Ralph Scharnau
The stock market currently reaches historic highs, unemployment dips to new lows, and analysts pronounce the economy strong. Despite these idyllic statistics, workers struggle to secure a decent standard of living.
Today, covering the costs of food, housing and child care requires more and more workers to hold two or even three jobs. Living paycheck-to-paycheck also means potential bankruptcy in the event of a medical crisis, higher mortgage/rent and tax payments and/or car repair bills.
Since securing the right to unionize and bargain collectively with employers on wages, hours and working conditions during the New Deal, workers have faced opposition from employers. The opposition ranges from refusing to negotiate, denying full pay, not compensating for overtime, forcing off-the-clock work, misclassifying jobs, hiring union-busting law firms, and outright wage theft.
Touting himself as a champion of the working class, the current occupant of the White House promised more jobs and better pay. Yet workplace participation rates have declined and wages have increased an abysmal 0.64%.
President Trump cuts taxes with negligible benefits for the vast majority of people, but bountiful benefits going to the rich. Trump-Republican political control in Washington and many states has brought cuts in workplace safety funding. There seems, moreover, to be no appetite for investigating on-the-job worker abuses.
In contrast to the anti-worker machinations of the Trump administration, research consistently illustrates the key role that unions play in raising wages and curtailing income inequality.
Unionization raises the average worker’s pay nearly 14%. A recent study found a 4% reduction in the gender pay gap among unionized workers compared with non-unionized workers, even after controlling for variables such as education, experience and geographic location.
Nearly two-thirds of union members between ages 18 and 64 are women and people of color. Unions are especially beneficial to these workers, who often face workplace challenges of discrimination and pay inequity. Unions’ nondiscrimination provisions in collective bargaining agreements also protect LGBTQ rights against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
While clearly not faultless, organized labor provides a continuing countervailing power to the power of management. Unions represent the interests of most wage earners. Organized workers have taken a leading role in pushing for public aid to education, promoting civil rights for all, calling for affordable housing, demanding universal legal rights, supporting health care coverage for everyone, and other programs important to whole communities everywhere.
Last year organized labor netted a very modest 262,000 new recruits. But the movement notched several high profile wins this spring. At Harvard University union leaders organized 5,000 teaching assistants and graduate students. Reacting to deep cuts in education funding, tens of thousands of teachers walked out and won concessions in West Virginia, Colorado, and Arizona. Similar victories occurred following strike authorizations from Teamsters at United Parcel Service and unionized casino workers in Las Vegas.
Union organizers mobilized a referendum campaign that soundly defeated an attempt by Missouri’s Republican-dominated legislature to curb workers’ rights. The ongoing campaigns for the $15 workday constitute another example of labor militancy.
A low wage economy punishes laborers who produce and consume the goods and services that energize the economy. But trade unions traditionally have advocated for all workers, members and non-members.
Those who join unions enjoy better wages and benefits than the unorganized. When unions are strong, all workers, regardless of union status, earn higher wages and the wealthiest Americans’ runaway incomes are constrained. At their best, unions combat the rising inequality that threatens our moral and democratic values.