The American worker is not getting their due
Every Labor Day we celebrate the American worker. We wax nostalgic about the bygone days of the great American middle class when parents worked hard and expected their children to climb the economic ladder.
Unfortunately, evidence today shows workers are not doing well. The standard of living for the American worker is, by many measures, falling. Politicians of all stripes need to address fundamental issues that have been ignored if the great working class is to flourish and remain the backbone of this country. And despite challenges, I’m not ready to concede that we can’t turn things around.
First a step back. According to one version of the story, labor unions planning the first Labor Day march in 1882 had to meet clandestinely in order to avoid persecution or possible violence from thugs hired by their bosses. Factory owners did not embrace these groundbreaking labor activists. Back when the norm was a 12-hour workday and 7-day workweeks, often for workers who hadn’t even reached puberty, the concept of worker rights was something many just did not appreciate.
But courageous activists persisted and politicians came around, enacting laws to protect the people who produced the goods that helped turn this country’s economy into the world’s most prosperous. By 1945, it’s estimated that about 25 percent of U.S. workers belonged to unions. Along with better pay came shorter work weeks, less dangerous conditions and even vacations. These benefits became an expected part of factory and professional work for those who belonged to unions.
But what about those stagnating wages? A recent Pew Research Center study found that in 1973 the American worker’s paycheck bought more than it does in 2018. Buying power has been stagnant for 45 years. That’s both an amazing and alarming statistic, and it points to the reality that both Democratic and Republican congressional majorities and presidents have not been able to solve the economic puzzle for the working class.
And right now the economy is growing tremendously. Jobs have been added to the economy every month since October 2010, the longest streak since records started being kept in the 1930s. The stock market is in its longest bull market ever, chugging along since March 2009.
So, under Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the economy is moving forward. But workers aren’t seeing an improvement. So far this year, wages are growing at a 2.7 percent annual rate. Inflation is at 2.9 percent. Those who work for a living are losing ground.
Where’s the disconnect? Some point to the weakened labor movement.
Unions are struggling. The United Steelworkers Local 507 is strong in Canton at Evergreen Packaging — an anomaly with about 90 percent of workers. Nationwide, it’s estimated that only 10 percent of the U.S. workforce is unionized.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5 percent of the full-time U.S. workforce — 3.6 million employees — are paid poverty-level wages. Since these workers are receiving government aid, working-class taxpayers are subsidizing these corporations despite record profits.
What about the recent tax cut? There’s no evidence it’s helping workers, as noted by the stagnant wage growth. And those much-ballyhooed bonuses many companies were touting? An analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness, an advocacy group dedicated to tax reform, noted that at Fortune 500 companies only 4 percent of workers got a bonus or raise as a result of the tax bill.
But workers and voters are not giving up. A recent ballot measure in Missouri that would have weakened unions was voted down. Fast food and service-sector workers are demanding a living wage, and many areas they are seeing an increase to $15 per hour. Teachers in many states have struck for higher wages. The Hill reports that in Oklahoma, “primary voters … chose to oust 15 of the 19 state legislators who tried to block a tax increase to fund a teacher pay raise.”
No one is blaming all of workers’ problems on corporate America or any particular political party. But when partisanship is as heated as it is today and rich donors game the system, those at the bottom lose. We can honor and fight for American workers by making careful decisions at the ballot box come November.