Here we are, fifty years removed from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and if anything times have gotten ever tougher for the American worker. Wages remain stagnant, even as corporate profits soar and the stock markets show near record highs after the deep plunge they took six years ago. Unemployment is still hovering at seven percent with countless others having retired and/or given up. There are many reasons why we are having a hard time getting everyone to work and keeping them there. To name a few, we have the off-shoring of jobs to save on labor costs, automation and higher productivity meaning more production for less labor hours, State and federal budget cuts causing layoffs and furloughs of public workers and mega-corporations buying up the competition or driving them out of business.
Organized Labor, of which I am a part of, has taken a big hit as well. Union density has gone from a high of 35% in 1954 down to its current 12% in 2013. Conventional wisdom says that “unions were a great idea back in the day” but they’re unnecessary now. This is wrong-headed thinking perpetuated by Capitalist think-tanks that are still pushing the “trickle down” policies of Reaganomics from thirty years ago. If the economy “trickles down” from the “job creators” then why has CEO pay grown by 725% since 1978 while worker pay grew 5.7% over the same time period. (Economic Policy Institute, http://www.epi.org/publication/ib331-ceo-pay-top-1-percent/) Seems like a few more nickels could have trickled down. This roughly coincides with the decline of union power in this nation. No voice in the workplace leads to economic disparity on a grand scale.
Labor is not without some blame in the equation. We have seen corruption that disillusioned the populace, turned people off. We have overreached in contract negotiations when we should have compromised. We have been arrogant when we should have been innovative. We’ve excluded and mistreated our non-union brothers when we should have embraced them. We’ve all heard the cliché of “three supervisors watching one guy work.” We’ve singlemindedly supported a Democratic Party that has often been weak and ineffectual on Labor issues. All of these things have combined to kill our public image.
Corporations have moved in to consolidate their power in the absence of unions. The Corporate Welfare State has since spiraled out of control. In 2006 corporate subsidies outstripped aid to children and families to the tune of 50%. In other words, corporations received $93 billion while aid to needy children and families was $59 billion. (Think By Numbers, http://thinkbynumbers.org/government-spending/corporate-welfare/corporate-welfare-statistics-vs-social-welfare-statistics/) Our tax dollars are subsidizing corporations to take our jobs and move them overseas. They are being used to help carpet-bagging companies to move from state to state or even city to city looking for the best deal. Is this what we call a “free market economy”? Sounds more like a free ride for these CEO’s and shareholders.
Corporate interests have rallied to the aid of the Republican Party, often citing the Labor’s “influence” on the Democrats. Groups like the Heritage Foundation, Americans For Prosperity and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spend millions of dollars supporting anti-union candidates and lobbying in Washington for anti-worker legislation. This legislation is often written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and crafted for the very businesses that the bills are supposed to regulate. ALEC has a vast stable of elected officials who they subsidize to do their work in Washington and in state capitals across the country. (Sourcewatch, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/American_Legislative_Exchange_Council)
Even celebrities feel the need to get into the mix. In a famous press conference, “Papa” John Schlatter, one of the most famous entrepreneurs in our country’s history, stated that the implementation of Obamacare would force his company to raise prices by 10-14 cents per pizza. Forbes Magazine calculated the costs at roughly 4 cents per pie. (Forbes Magazine, http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2012/11/14/Forbes-Papa-Johns-ACA-cost-5-cents/UPI-54101352940627/ ) He hasn’t publicly come out on his take on raising the minimum wage. Maybe he learned his lesson.
So, is this really the requiem of the American Worker? Are we fading off into the sunset like old cowboys on horses being replaced by the automobile. I think not. Instead of being fighting a losing battle we are rising from the ashes like a phoenix on the back of New Labor. Wal-Mart, whose ownership is among the richest people in America, are seeing their workers stand up for a living wage and benefits on the job. Fast food workers across the country are rising up for better working conditions and quality of life. Lobstermen in Maine have formed a union for the first time. California has seen unionized “Gentlemen’s clubs.” Hotel workers, home health care professionals, taxi and shuttle bus drivers have been organizing across the country for a better way of life.
So what’s the answer? A new economy that allows us all to prosper together. Instead of a minimum wage create a living wage. As wages rise, so will spending, saving and the GDP. Redistribute the spoils of our labor to the producers of those spoils. Like it used to be when America was the economic engine of the world. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of what form the (r)evolution takes. Solidarity!