Working Harder for Less Mocks the American Dream

Worsening unemployment. Millions of home foreclosures. Two-income households unable to support families. America’s workers are facing economic disasters so severe, even the national media is paying attention.

But the current crisis has long roots. America’s working families have been suffering through what is now a generation-long stagnation of wages and rising economic insecurity.

Steps must be taken immediately to shore up our flagging economy and provide much-needed assistance to working families. The AFL-CIO union movement supports an immediate moratorium on home foreclosures and the passage of a second fiscal stimulus package, including extension of unemployment insurance and federal aid to states and cities to prevent further cutbacks of vital public services.

Yet short-term measures will not be enough.

We must restore the balance between workers and their employers to ensure that workers can bargain fairly for an equitable share of our nation’s prosperity. Working families have been left behind over the past three decades, as virtually all income gains have gone to the wealthiest Americans.

Between the mid-1940s and mid-1970s, inflation-adjusted wages doubled for most U.S. workers, but between 1979 and 2007, they grew only 7 percent. Since 1979, productivity, or output per hour, has grown 70 percent—10 times as fast as real wages.

As a result, income and wealth are more unequally distributed in the United States than in any other developed country and are more unequal today than at any time since the 1920s. Even more alarming, American intergenerational economic mobility is falling and is already lower than in many European countries.

In a House subcommittee hearing on the economy last week, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) summed it up this way:

In short, many Americans are working harder for less. Less income, less job security, less health and pension coverage, less time at home, and less opportunity. Left unchecked, this trend will strike at the very core of the American dream.

Economic Policy Institute (EPI) economist Jared Bernstein describes it this way:

The difficulties facing American workers predated the recession. There may be no more telling statistic…than the fact that the real wage for the median male was lower in 2007 than in 1973.

For the last few decades, [workers] have been losing employer-provided health coverage, or paying more out-of-pocket for premiums, health services, or medications. Their pensions are less secure, and have flipped from majority guaranteed benefit to guaranteed contribution, shifting the risk of an adequate retirement benefit from their employer to themselves and their family.

Correcting this long-term imbalance will require multiple strategies. We need policies that ensure a just global economy. We need a government that provides quality services, adequate public investment and fair taxes. And we need to ensure that when workers seek to join together to improve their wages and access to health care and retirement security, they can do so without employer harassment and intimidation.

In 2007, full-time union workers were paid $863 in median weekly income, compared with $663 for their nonunion counterparts. In March 2007, 78 percent of union workers in the private sector had jobs with employer-provided health insurance, compared with only 49 percent of nonunion workers. Union workers also are more likely to have retirement and short-term disability benefits.

America’s workers know union membership helped build the nation’s middle class. Some 60 million workers say they would join a union if they could. But the nation’s labor laws are broken, letting greedy employers harass and intimidate employees who seek to form a union. In the post-World War II years, our nation’s middle class mushroomed because workers from the factory lines to the office steno pool could join together and form unions, enabling them to negotiate for better wages, affordable health care and retirement security. Their purchasing power helped strengthen communities, and their solidarity pushed through such vital policies as job safety standards and Medicare that benefited all working Americans.

But some 92 percent of private-sector employers, when faced with employees who want to join together in a union, force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda, and 75 percent hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns. When America’s workers are unable to win a voice at work, the American Dream becomes harder and harder to reach.

That’s why passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is a top priority for the union movement. The Employee Free Choice Act is a crucial step in moving our nation toward a just economy. It would level the workplace playing field by enabling employees to sign up for a union through a majority verification (card-check) process or labor board election, whichever they choose. It also would provide for mediation and arbitration if management and the union can’t work out a contract in 90 days. Because even after workers successfully form a union, in one-third of the instances, employers refuse to negotiate a contract.

Chris Williams, who teaches introductory physics at Pace University in the New York City area, has experienced this firsthand. As an “adjunct faculty” member, Williams couldn’t survive on his wages from Pace, where the average pay for teaching a 15-week, three-credit course is just $2,500. So while a tenured professor might earn $100,000 annually, an adjunct in the next classroom with the same qualifications would earn only $15,000 for the equivalent of a full-time workload.

Williams and other adjuncts joined the New York State United Teachers/AFT (NYSUT/AFT) in December 2003. But, once at the bargaining table, Pace dragged its heels, and today, the adjuncts still have no contract. Williams, a strong supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act, puts it this way:

Anything that can speed that process has to be good for workers. It’s clear that people need someone to represent them collectively. At the moment, the balance of power is almost completely with the employers. It’s long overdue that workers shift the power a little bit in our favor.

The health of the U.S. economy will turn on whether we let corporations get away with paying poverty wages to those responsible for teaching those who, ultimately, will lead our country. And so will the future of our nation.

(Show your support for the Employee Free Choice Act by signing a petition for its passage here. We plan to present 1 million signatures supporting the Employee Free Choice Act to the next Congress and president.)

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while working her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—Tula started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), Tula now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.