Labor Day in America – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Today is Labor Day in America – a time to celebrate workers the world over and take stock of the welfare of America’s workers. The fact is that wages and working conditions for millions of American employees have deteriorated; the once thriving middle class working in union jobs that saw its heyday after World War II, has dwindled as America’s most powerful employers have successfully fought to undermine the labor movement and its ability to negotiate for decent wages and benefits. From 1973 to 2011, the share of the workforce represented by unions declined from 26.7 percent to 13.1 percent.

A few weeks ago I listened to the book on tape version of Nickel and Dimed, the 2001 bestselling account by American author Barbara Ehrenreich –which I read when it came out – chronicling her year-long experience trying to survive on minimum wage jobs. When Ehrenreich published the book 10 years ago, it had a big impact; it seemed everyone was reading it and pledging to do something to improve the plight of minimum wage workers. But the latest edition of Ehrenreich’s book includes a foreword where we are 10 years later. It’s not happy news. Things are worse, not better, for low-income workers. Those low paid jobs were at least plentiful. Today, with employment hovering between 8 and 10 percent depending on where you live, even those lousy jobs with no benefits are hard to come by.

But NCL’s history of advancing the cause of workers continues unabated, and this is a good time to reflect on what we are doing to raise awareness about the quality of life for America’s working families.

  • This week Reid Maki of our staff and I read essays and reviewed posters prepared by farmworker teens. These youngsters described waking up at 3 am with their parents, driving 2 or more hours to a field only to spend 12 hours picking fruit for less than minimum wage, all the while subjected to bee stings, ladder tip overs, and relentless beating sun. It’s clear from these poignant stories that the lives of migrant farmworkers – their living conditions, their lack of benefits on the job, their minimal pay – have improved only marginally in the last 50 years. NCL champions the cause of farmworker children through our Child Labor Coalition, working to break the cycle of poverty for low wage migrant farm worker kids by getting them out of the fields and into schools.
  • During Restaurant Week in Washington August 13-19, NCL staff distributed flyers in front of local venues facing lawsuits for their poor worker treatment. We called for paid sick days and health care for restaurant workers and an end to the poverty level tipped wage of $2.75 an hour.

When, on August 31st , the Washington Post editorialized in support of Walmart opening in DC’s Ward 4, NCL responded with a Letter to the Editor. (Whether the Post will publish our letter we don’t know.) Walmart is notorious for paying low wages and stinting on benefits and working conditions. The Post claims that Walmart’s promise to hire 300 people and pay $2.5 million in taxes makes them an attractive employer. NCL begs to differ. Our letter to the Post noted that an employee who works Walmart’s definition of full-time (34 hours per week) makes just $15,500 per year. Thousands of people who work full-time at Walmart live below the poverty line and are forced to utilize state subsidized benefits. Walmart employees cost taxpayers more than $1 billion nationwide. We also noted that a Chicago study from 2009 shows that businesses within one mile of a Walmart Supercenter have a 25 percent chance of shuttering in the first year, and a 40 percent chance of shuttering in the second year. “DC doesn’t need Walmart, it needs employers who pay fair wages and benefits to workers and a good corporate citizen and neighbor.”

While NCL strives to draw attention to improving the wages of American workers, we learned that a majority of jobs lost during the economic downturn of the last few years were in the middle range of wages, while a majority of those added during the recovery are low paying, according to the National Employment Law Project. Jobs with median hourly wages of $7.69 to $13.83, accounted for 21 percent of job losses during the retraction. Since employment started expanding, they have accounted for 58 percent of all job growth. The middle third — occupations in fields like construction, manufacturing and information, with median hourly wages of $13.84 to $21.13 — accounted for 60 percent of job losses from the beginning of 2008 to early 2010. The job market has turned around since then, but those fields have represented only 22 percent of total job growth.

There are many more examples –few of them uplifting – about the state of labor today, especially for workers at the bottom of the totem poll. What can be done? For starters, for low-income workers, we can support legislation to increase the minimum wage to $9.80 by July 1, 2014. S. 3453 and HR 6211, the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012, would do that. Raising wages of about 28 million workers, who would receive nearly $40 billion in additional income over the phase-in period, and it would stimulate the economy!

And we can support the right to unionize and frankly, do a far better PR job publicizing the value of unions in improving wages and working conditions across all industries. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Between 1973 and 2011, the median worker’s real hourly compensation (which includes wages and benefits) rose just 10.7 percent. EPI: “ A major factor driving these trends has been the ongoing erosion of unionization and the declining bargaining power of unions, along with the weakened ability of unions to set norms or labor standards that raise the wages of comparable nonunion workers.” EPI’s research is incontrovertible and we need to make that public.

Finally, we need to draw attention to the massive profits that so many American companies enjoy – in 2011 Apple made $25 Billion in profits, Walmart $15 Billion – and yet so few are willing to share that wealth with their workforce without a union in place. What if Walmart raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour – no one will get rich on that but it’s closer to a living wage? Apple could do the same – why not share your riches with the workers?

This Labor Day, we should resolve to redouble our efforts, explain to the public more effectively why laws like the Employee Free Choice Act are needed to promote union membership, we need to demand that companies making billions in profits can well afford to raise the wages they pay to their workforce, and we should commit ourselves to improving the standard of living for all working families.