Education Is Great, But We Need More UnionsThanks Amy, I spotted this when I got a link to another important story at Campaign For America's Future, entitled "Where's Our Bailout?". Big thanks to The Man Common for squeezing out all the great sites for stories that matter, and opening our eyes to them.
By Amy Traub, September 18th, 2008
The American Dream is a middle-class dream. We occasionally fantasize about striking it rich or becoming famous, but Americans mostly aim to achieve and hold onto a middle-class standard of living. When the fundamentals of middle-class life — jobs that pay enough to support a family, access to health care, a safe and stable home, time off work for vacation and major life events, a good education for our children, and a dignified retirement — are within the reach of most Americans, the nation is stronger economically, culturally and democratically.
Today the nation’s middle class is squeezed between rising prices for staples like gasoline, food and health care, and stagnant wages that don’t keep up. Plummeting housing prices have undermined the value of the single biggest asset most middle-class families own and millions risk losing their homes to foreclosure. The time-honored middle-class survival strategies: send more family members into the workforce, work longer hours, borrow more, and save less, are reaching their limits. Middle-class families are forced to tap into their retirement savings to afford a college education for their children. It is harder to get ahead, most Americans say, and easier to fall behind. We are moving away from an economy that enables working people to enjoy a middle-class standard of living. How can we reverse course?
We need to create an economy in which more American jobs support a middle-class standard of living. To do that, working people – from janitors to journalists – need more power in the labor market.
Some offer increased access to education and (re)training as a solution to securing middle-class jobs in competitive global labor markets. And yes, the public sector should increase support for public colleges and provide more generous grants to students so that young people can more easily attend college and older workers can acquire new skills. But education alone won’t solve the economic problems underlying the middle-class squeeze.
If it were, college graduates would be doing better. And while educated workers are more likely than those without a degree to enjoy a middle-class standard of living, wages for most college graduates have grown sluggishly in recent years and their access to employer-provided health care and pensions has dropped.
And then there are the tens of millions of Americans who work at jobs that don’t require a college degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that retail sales, food service, home health aides, janitors, laborers and landscapers will be among the occupations with the most available jobs by 2016. These occupations, as much as financial analysts or software engineers, are the jobs of the future. What are we doing to ensure that these jobs can enable working people to live the American Dream?
Today, if you are a child-care worker or security guard (both also among the next decade’s most in-demand occupations), you are likely receiving low pay and poor benefits. But history tells us that it doesn’t have to be that way. In the early 20th century, when the booming manufacturing sector offered dangerous, low-paid work on assembly lines and factory floors, a wave of union organizing and bargaining lifted wages and improved benefits and working conditions. Those formerly awful manufacturing jobs have become the good jobs we now lament losing to overseas competition. To a large extent, today’s modern middle class is a legacy of those union advances, which set the standard for gains like employer-sponsored health coverage, pensions and paid vacation.
Economists at the Economic Policy Institute point out that event though productivity grew briskly in the most recent economic recovery, hourly compensation didn’t keep up – even for those with a college degree. Instead, corporate profits ate up a record share of the nation’s gross domestic product. Despite relatively low unemployment, employees don’t have enough power in the labor market to secure wages and salaries commensurate with the economic growth they help create. This is largely because today’s labor movement is a shadow of its former strength – representing a mere 7.5 percent of private sector employees. Unions have historically been a potent vehicle for working people to exert labor market leverage. To make the economy work for working people and rebuild the middle class, they must become one again.
No public policy would do more to revitalize the labor movement than the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 and killed by a Senate filibuster. The legislation would streamline the process for organizing unions and bargaining a first contract, cutting through the suffocating atmosphere of threats, intimidation and illegal firings that prevent so many working people from joining a union today.
The Employee Free Choice Act is a game-changer, directly attacking the systemic problem of employees’ lack of power in the labor market. The impact would boost low-wage service employees struggling to gain a middle-class standard of living as well as college-educated professionals trying to hold onto it. We can legislate universal health care, mandate paid sick days, raise the minimum wage or subsidize take-home pay with the earned income tax credit, but empowering people to join unions directly redistributes economic power back to working people, enabling Americans to win gains for themselves in the workplace. This isn’t to say that some or all of these benefits shouldn’t be written into law as well – in fact, a strengthened labor movement might also help build political will for those reforms – but rather that this legislation changes the balance of power in a way that many other reforms don’t.
Globalization is the elephant in the parlor. International competition poses a formidable challenge to workers’ ability to exercise power in the labor market. Some are rightly concerned that raising wages and improving American jobs will encourage employers to move even more jobs overseas. But accepting ever-declining standards in a desperate bid to hold onto employment is a losing game for everyone. Instead, strengthening and expanding the middle class will ultimately require changing the balance of power worldwide – using international alliances and trade agreements to improve workplace standards everywhere. This isn’t an easy proposition. But reclaiming some power in our own workplaces is the necessary first step.
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Who's Against American workers and The Employee Free Choice Act
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