Slowing the Decline in Living Standards for Low Wage Workers is Not Enough

Today’s increase means a full-time minimum wage earner will receive $28 more a week. This raise is badly needed. It is also categorically insufficient.

While our nation’s plunge into recession has forced many working families to tighten their belts, low-wage workers have fared even worse. The decade between 1997 and 2007 was the longest period in history without a minimum wage increase–but even with this wage hike, minimum wage workers will still make less than they did in 1956, after adjusting for inflation.

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life.” How is it possible that his statement would still ring true 40 years later? Recent raises are so little, so late that even with the increase, America’s minimum wage is still 17 percent lower than its peak in 1968. In fact, it would take $9.83 today to match the buying power of the minimum wage of 1968.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) estimates that some 10 million workers–those at the minimum wage or just above it–will benefit from the increase. But the facts remain that an individual earning $7.25 an hour in a standard 2,000-hour work year would earn $14,500 per year…a salary which is still slightly below the 2009 federal poverty level for a family of two. While corporate profits have grown steadily in the past several decades, workers are not getting . As the minimum wage fell 22% in real dollars from 1973 to 2007, corporate profits have grown steadily in the past several decades, jumping more than 50% during the same time period. Statistics like these just reinforce that sad reality that although Americans are working harder than ever, they are not reaping the fair share of the profits their labor work is creating.

Although the federal minimum wage increase from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour reflects a growing understanding that workers face enormous financial burdens, it’s not nearly enough. A NY Times editorial points out: “The latest increase will slow the decline in living standards, but it doesn’t reverse the overall downward pull.” But it doesn’t have to be this way, says SEIU’s Anna Burger:

“For millions of hardworking Americans, their only opportunity for a raise is controlled by which way the political wind blows in Washington…Congress must pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would allow workers to bargain with their employers for better job security, wages and benefits to ensure that millions more Americans have good jobs with real benefits and a pathway to the middle class.”

It’s time to break the cycle of too little, too late raises. We can’t build a strong, sustainable economy if a growing share of business revenue continues to go to executive pay and profits–we need to level the playing field. The thousands of people who have already taken action know that majority sign-up is still, bar none, the fairest way for workers to negotiate for better job security and wages.

It’s important that both the House and the Senate see how much support there is for majority sign-up and the Employee Free Choice Act–


Kate Thomas: Kate Thomas works in New Media for the Service Employees International Union.

This article was originally posted on the SEIU Blog on July 24, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.


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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa es estudiante de tercer año en la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Siracusa. Se licenció en Periodismo en Penn State. Con su investigación jurídica y la redacción de Workplace Fairness, se esfuerza por dotar a las personas de la información que necesitan para ser su mejor defensor.