by Ralph Scharnau
The economic/business headlines proclaim the American economy as very strong and marked by historic low inflation and unemployment rates. But these idyllic statistics mask workers’ struggle to secure a decent standard of living.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Congress has not raised it in just over a decade, the longest time in history. Factoring in inflation compounds wage earners duress. Low income levels exist for many wage earners in a range of service sector occupations from fast foods to retail sales.
Wage and salaried employees have experienced stagnant compensation levels. Today, covering the costs of food, housing, clothing, transportation and child care requires more and more workers to hold two or even three jobs.
Wage stagnation, moreover, is a universal problem, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. 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% or less of their income.
Millions of employees live paycheck-to-paycheck. This means potential bankruptcy in the event of a medical crisis, higher mortgage/rent and tax payments and/or car repair bills. Worker distress contributes to greater food banks usage, mental health problems, and suicide rates. Meanwhile the chasm between the super-rich and everyone else continues to widen.
American workers today face a series of challenges often imposed by hostile employers and conservative politicians. The party of Trump gives big tax breaks to the rich and reduces workplace protections for workers.
The list of workplace abuses also include refusal to pay minimum wages/overtime pay, forcing off-the-clock work, hiring union-busting law firms, job reclassification as a device to reduce employee pay, and outright wage theft. Furthermore, workplace issues like downsizing, speedup, outsourcing, privatization, capital flight, and unsafe working conditions amount to direct assaults on workers’ livelihood.
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.
Unions offer a labor-centered way to address structural and policy issues that help to expand economic opportunity. Unionists believed that all workers deserve living wages, decent hours, and humane working conditions regardless of their skin color, sexual orientation, and economic status.
Union membership today hovers around 12%. The rate of public sector union membership outpaces private sector union membership by roughly five times. Those in the labor force without the protection of a union are considered “at will” employees with no workplace rights except the right to quit!
For the first time in decades, union membership numbers rose significantly among young people. Historically, younger people had unionization rates far behind older adults. But recent studies show there were 262,000 new unionists in the U.S. in 2017. About three-fourths of this increase came from workers aged 16 to 35.
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 for everyone, and other programs important to whole communities everywhere.
A low wage economy punishes laborers who produce and consume goods and services that energize the economy. Trade unions traditionally have advocated for all workers, members and non-members.
Those who join unions enjoy better wages and benefits than the unorganized. At their best, unions combat the rising inequality that threatens our moral and democratic values.
August 29, 2019