Working for Less: Why We Need Workplace Fairness

It’s the time of year when everyone contemplates their past and their future, beginning a self-assessment process designed to make 2006 the best year ever, or at least free of 2005’s mistakes. Is it a time for big changes in your life? Or has something validated that you’re headed in the right direction? One look at a recent Chicago Tribune article has convinced me that there’s more of a need for Workplace Fairness and our work than ever. If the story doesn’t almost bring tears to your eyes, no matter how long that you’ve been involved with fairness issues in the workplace, then perhaps it’s time for your own reassessment.

The title pretty much says it all: Will Work for Less. The article tells the story of Robert Johnson of Decatur, Illinois. Johnson used to make $29/hour at a nuclear power plant, until he was laid off. He now works for $12.24/hour at at the local Caterpillar plant — a job he is lucky to have, since it came along right before being forced to start work for $7/hour at Target. What does Johnson get for that salary? He pays child support for his three children, $285 every other week, leaving him $516 to spend every two weeks. He lives in a small, darkly lit one-bedroom with nearly empty walls, described as the cheapest place in town that he thought he could live in, for $385 a month. He pays $215 monthly for his 2001 Chevy Lumina. He has the minimum car insurance, $30 a month. Food costs $150 a month.

Although he’s diabetic and needs to eat regularly, Johnson rarely can eat at the Caterpillar cafeteria because a slice of pizza costs nearly $3, and that’s beyond his means. He saved for weeks to buy a five-pack of $7 T-shirts. If he doesn’t have gas money, Sunday visits with his kids 53 miles away are out of the question. Unless he works overtime, he can’t afford his necessary doctor visits and medicine, and even then it’s a struggle.

Johnson is surrounded by workers who make significantly more than he does for doing the same work. Caterpillar has reduced its starting wages for new hires from $20/hour to $10/hour, a concession its union was forced to accept to keep its local plant from being closed. Long-term employees, paid under the old scale, are able to have comfortable middle-class lifestyles, while newer hires, like Johnson, are struggling just to survive.

Kent Smith, who has worked at Caterpillar’s Decatur plant for 31 years, makes just over $25 an hour as an electrician. With his Caterpillar job and his wife’s salary as a manager for the local telephone company, he is able to live in a two-story wood-frame house set amid 10 acres of hickory, oak and ash trees, with a tree-shaded 13-foot-deep pond stocked with fish, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle parked in the driveway. Even Smith, who has done well financially, knows not to talk about his lifestyle with new hires at work because “I try not to rub their noses in it.” But he understand what’s at stake for his fellow workers. “Corporations want the American worker to tread water or sink so other workers around the world can catch up with us,” he said. So, too, it strikes him that a job at Caterpillar “used to be a good job, but now it’s just a job.” (See Chicago Tribune article.)

Caterpillar spokeswoman Linda Fairbanks says about the company’s wage cuts: “Our wage and benefit package is competitive in the local market,” she said, adding that the company relied on a vast array of data. Competitive: compared to what? Wal-Mart and Target, perhaps. As one local agency head assisting laid-off workers points out: “Ten years ago, many factory workers were making very decent wages. But I don’t think we’ll see that again.”

For his part, Johnson is surprisingly upbeat, “It’s been a learning experience. It shows me I can do things I once didn’t want to do. … You just have to keep a positive attitude. But a lot of people are giving up,” he said. “The way things are, you know you have to take it as you get it. Johnson has a cat, creatively named “Cat,” to keep him company, even though she costs money he doesn’t have as well. He thinks that in time, his pay will go up, or maybe he will get a better-paying job.”We’re in a cycle right now where corporations have the advantage, and unions don’t,” he said. “But soon the cycle will change.”

Will the cycle change?

Not unless we boost the federal minimum wage so that the lowest paying jobs provide a more liveable wage, and companies are forced to pay even more to attract workers to more physically demanding jobs like those at Caterpillar. Not until we reform health care so that workers like Johnson are able to get the medicines they need without worrying how to pay the rent and car payments. Not until we ensure that workers are able to retire after long-term commitment to the workforce, and often a single employer, without being plunged into instant poverty. Not until workers who want to form unions are able to do so, giving unions much more leverage in salary negotiations with employers. Not until we hold American employers who want to move jobs overseas to decent labor standards, so that Kent Smith’s observations are no longer true.

At Workplace Fairness, we will keep bringing these stories to your attention, until there aren’t so many of them each day, week and month. We want to work with every one of you to be part of the solution to these problems, with workers demanding better from their employers and their political leaders. It’s not just Robert Johnson’s wishful thinking that will change the cycle: there’s too much at stake. It is each and every American worker speaking out who understands just how important it is to have a job that allows you to have a decent life, and not just merely survive, wondering if you can afford to see your kids or take your medicine that week, or even keep the cat fed. That’s what will bring about the kind of change the American worker needs to see.

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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.