Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.
– John Lewis
On this Labor Day weekend, I want to use this week’s column to make a few observations about – you guessed it – labor. In particular, I want to talk about the ongoing deterioration of balance between the American workforce and those who employ them.
As is well pointed out in this staff editorial, the wage gap between workers and management is at historic highs, and continues to grow. I recently read a comment from the CEO of a national fast food chain who castigated his workforce for suggesting that they be paid $15 an hour. This CEO’s salary broke down to $4,865 per hour – meaning he made more income in four hours than his average worker makes in a year. Yet without those workers. he’d be unemployed.
You have to ask yourself: What exactly does this guy do on a daily basis that makes him worth so much more than the people who make his job possible? If you approach that question from the perspective of who actually works harder, the answer becomes even murkier.
But there’s a much bigger question that every single one of us should contemplate – particularly those of us who find it easy to denigrate the working poor.
First, think about the jobs in our society that usually pay minimum or similarly low wages. Such jobs include fast food workers, restaurant support staff, construction laborers, hotel cleaning staff, store clerks, unskilled health care workers, janitorial workers, security guards, and a plethora of other people who I probably don’t need to point out.
Now, ask yourself this: Which of these workers can our society do without?
(Pause to give you a chance to think about this…)Now, if you answered this question honestly, your answer would be “none of them.” People at the lowest end of the income spectrum are the grease that keeps our society functioning. Without these workers, there isn’t a single profession or industry that wouldn’t grind to a halt.
Next question: If our society can’t function without the labor and services provided by workers at the low end of the income spectrum – meaning what they provide is critical – how can any person say that they don’t deserve to make a living wage for providing us with the labor that enables our economy to function, much less thrive?
I recently saw a meme on Facebook from some conservative organization asking why a fast food worker should make the same amount of money as an emergency services worker who makes $15 an hour. The simple answer is that they shouldn’t. Both should make more, with a living wage being the low end of the range. Of course the emergency worker should make more than the fast food worker.
The answer isn’t to suppress the fast food worker’s wage, but to raise that of the emergency worker – something that will never happen because no one wants to pay the taxes that would fund his or her higher salary.
Next, let’s talk about the government-provided social services that conservatives lump together as “welfare.” They often try to demonize those who receive such services (which, by the way, constitute less than 4% of the federal budget). I could spend paragraphs writing about how such characterizations constitute the epitome of stupidity – not to mention inhumanity, but to those who denigrate the poor, facts and figures are irrelevant.
There are undoubtedly people who game the welfare system, and frankly, they should be dealt with as harshly as those who game the tax system to pay significantly lower rate than the rest of us (think big corporations and the uber-wealthy). But any reasonable reading of available statistics makes it clear that such welfare fraud constitutes a tiny percentage of taxpayer money when compared with the costs to the public of corporate and institutional fraud.
Most people who receive taxpayer-funded social services are actually those classified as the working poor, and most of those benefits go to their dependents (think children – 22% of whom go to bed hungry every day… In 21st century America).
This brings us to our next question: Doesn’t it make sense that if these people – minimum and low-waged workers – actually made a living wage for the work they do, that we could drastically reduce the need for these social services? Isn’t that the epitome of a “conservative” approach to solving the problem of so-called welfare?
There are numerous examples in corporate America of businesses that pay a living wage to all of their workforce and still make handsome profits. The only explanation for those companies that refuse to do so is greed – something which has tragically become institutionalized and even admired in our society to a degree never before seen in human history.
The role of organized laborUp until the 1980s, the balancing force in the American economy was organized labor. Unions and collective bargaining are completely responsible for the emergence of a robust missile class. But as reported in this story, the influence of unions has waned, with their role in our economy being relentlessly attacked and sapped by corporate America and their political lapdogs.
That’s not to say that unions haven’t had their problems, or shouldn’t be reformed. As unions acquired more power and experienced an influx of money, they became victims of the same kind of corruption and inefficiency that often infects the corporate sector.
Big unions like the Teamsters became so awash with money and power that they attracted the attention of organized criminal organizations, which turned the unions into extensions of their evil and decadence, and controlled them through intimidation and terror for decades.
Unions have also been notoriously slow and unwilling to adjust to economic realities. There are two examples of this that particularly stand out. The first is that of the United Steelworkers in the early 70s. The steelworkers had tremendously high wages and benefits, and to some degree, you can’t really blame them for wanting to hold onto those.
But around 1970, Japan emerged as a major producer of high-quality steel at much lower prices than American steel companies. The largest part of those companies’ costs was for labor. The United Steelworkers refused to acknowledge that the market was evolving and demanded that they continue to receive the huge wages and benefits that were already out-of-balance with the rest of the workforce in general. The net result was the massive and utter collapse of the American steel industry, which led to the majority of these workers losing their jobs.
In all fairness, I should point out that the steel industry in America is strong once again, but only because they drastically re-envisioned their business model and rebuilt from the ground up.
The other example is that of the United Auto Workers, who similarly in the same period of time were making disproportionately high wages and benefits and wages. When Americans began buying cheaper, better built and more efficient cars from Japan and Europe, the UAW’s intransigence almost destroyed the American auto industry. Fortunately, unlike the steelworkers, the auto workers backed off before going over the precipice. Today, auto workers remain some of the better compensated workers in our labor force.
But there’s also no question that organized labor has done much more good than harm to our overall economy. Although only a small percentage of workers are members of organized labor groups, Unions in general still retain a very high approval rating amongst the American public.
So although corporate America continues to denigrate organized labor, and politicians at the federal and state levels continue to kiss the broad asses of those who fund their campaigns by trying to do anything to sap any influence that rank-and-file workers might have (think Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to crush unions representing teachers and public safety workers), elected officials at the local level are addressing how debilitating low wages are to their environments.
Many localities have enacted their own minimum wage ordinances to address the economic disparities that lead to pockets of poverty, despair, crime, and urban decay, recognizing that many of their worst problems are fairly easy to solve.
It’s way past time for all Americans to acknowledge that the only way for us to be one of the best places in the world – to exemplify what conservatives like to refer to as American exceptionalism – is to incorporate a simple concept into our society… That concept is fairness.
Rather than complain about government imposed minimum wage laws, we should all realize that the only reason such laws are even necessary is because without them, greediness in our society would turn America into a third-rate third world bottom feeder.
It’s beyond time to pay all of our workforce a living wage. Only then will we be the kind of society that the rest of the world looks up to.
As the Pilot editorial says: “All a just American society can do is ensure equal opportunity for everyone to succeed.”
(Mike Rau now has to get ready to go to work)