Needed for Labor Day: Something to Celebrate

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Mark Weisbrot
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September 1, 2007
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September 9, 2007

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Another Labor Day is here and American workers are still waiting for something to celebrate. How about a wage increase? Well, the average real wage today is just where it was nearly five years ago, in December 2002, despite the fact that our economy and productivity have been growing the whole time. In fact, wages are barely above where they were more than three decades ago: from 1973-2006, the average wage, adjusted for inflation, grew by a grand total of one-half percent.
What kind of economy grows for decades on end but doesn't allow most of the population to share in the gains from that growth? Well, ours – but it is rather unusual in the world. It comes with a number of other dubious distinctions that make America unique among high-income countries: the only one that doesn't guarantee health care for its citizens. The only one with no paid holidays or vacations required by law. The lowest life expectancy. The worst inequality. The highest poverty rate. And the highest incarceration rate in the whole world – rich and poor countries included.

These are some of the bad things that happen when there is no sizable countervailing force to defend the interests of the citizenry against untrammeled greed and concentrated wealth and power. Since most Americans have to work for a living, that force would be organized labor – and for a while our unions were able to play this role.

But over the last three decades this important institutional counterweight has been drastically diminished. Unions now represent just 7.4 percent of the private sector labor force, as compared with 35 percent in the 1950s. This is due to a series of assaults on organized labor, including commercial agreements that made it easier for US companies to seek low-wage, low-regulation (e.g. Mattel in China) production elsewhere. But the biggest change of all is the erosion of American workers' right to organize unions, to the point where it barely exists.

Employees can often get a majority of their co-workers to sign up for the union, but then they have to have an election. But it is not an election that would be considered free or fair if it were held for political office. Far from it. Employers hire "union avoidance" consultants, hold captive audience meetings, one-on-one talks with supervisors, and make all kinds of threats – including the increasingly realistic threat that they will relocate to China or Mexico. Combined with threats of firing, actual dismissals and endless delays, this is often enough to render such elections meaningless.

Fortunately, there is now some legislation before Congress that would help restore workers' right to organize. The Employee Free Choice Act would not end these abuses. But it would avoid some of them by allowing workers to establish a union when a majority of workers had signed cards indicating that they wanted to join. Once this were verified, there would be no need to force workers to vote again and be subjected in the process to weeks and months of employer anti-union campaigning.

The Employee Free Choice Act passed the House of Representatives on March 1 but faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans have promised a filibuster. And President Bush has said he would veto it.

But 2008 is an election year, and discontent among the electorate is growing. As bad as things are now, they will surely get worse as the housing bubble continues to burst and the economy slows.  By Labor Day of next year, candidates for Congress or the presidency should be forced to state their position on this vital human rights legislation, which will be even more urgent in an economic downturn. Those candidates that won't support it should be sent packing.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net).