Max Rust of the Chicago Sun-Times has produced a concise overview of right-to-work laws and their impact on states and workers. In short, the picture is not pretty. In right-to-work states, wages are lower, infant mortality rates are higher, fewer people have health insurance, and the average level of education is lower. Several states, mostly in the South and Southwest, have had these laws in place since the 1940s. More recently, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have passed such laws.
Right-to-work laws hurt the ability of workers engage in collective bargaining. Yes, they do give a few people the freedom to avoid union dues. Many others, however, have seen hourly wages in these states go down over recent decades. Unions are far from perfect. In fact, today’s Chicago Sun-Times also features a great investigative article on the family of a local Teamsters’ official. Even so, unions enable workers to bargain for better wages and working conditions. If unions are so bad, why do corporations and billionaires participate in groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Club for Growth, and ALEC? If the richest people in American can collaborate to protect their interests, shouldn’t working class and middle class Americans have the same right?
During his last State of the Union Address, President Obama declared that “America needs a raise.” Yesterday, he acted on those words. The president announced that salaried employees (5 million Americans) making as much as $50,400 would be eligible for overtime. As Laura Clawson of Daily Kos puts it, employers will no longer be able to use exempt status (salaried employees) to keep from paying overtime. This move by the Obama Administration (if it’s not overturned by a court challenge) will either give employees more money or more time off. The 40 hour week will again become meaningful to millions of Americans. It’s a good day for working people.
P.S. President Obama is featured in The Huffington Post on his overtime reform. The president express great confidence that he is doing the right thing for American workers: "That's how America should do business. In this country, a hard day's work deserves a fair day's pay. That's at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America." I agree, but would add that what the president is doing will also help the working class and the working poor, who are often victims of wage theft. We all deserve a fair day's pay.
Today's Chicago Sun-Times reports that Sam Zell has donated $4 million to a PAC that supports the agenda of Governor Bruce Rauner. Columnist Mark Brown sees this donation as part of a movement that he describes this way: "Rich people, no longer satisfied with the privileges of being rich, are going for complete control." This isn't simply a matter of politics. Much of Governor Rauner's agenda targets union employees. Brown quotes Zell as saying, "The 1 percent work harder." That may be true, but in a time when most American face flat wages and poverty is growing, it's hard to see how the hard working 1% are helping the rest of us. Working people need to decide if they support making people like Zell even richer or if they want to have a society where children from the middle class and the working class will have opportunities to be successful. Rich people have always had disproportionate control. Are we moving to a point where their voice is the only one that matters?
While this month’s employment report again showed more jobs being created and a falling unemployment rate, wages dropped. According to past trends, wages should go up as labor becomes scarcer and companies want to retain productive employees. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich analyzes this situation in a recent blog post. Reich points to factors that can hold wages down even as unemployment shrinks. Two main culprits are the global economy and automation. Companies can offshore cheaper labor, and they can find new ways to let technology replace humans. Reich scoffs at those who call these factors “efficiency.” Reich concludes by blaming both large corporations and Wall Street for holding down wages. I’d agree with him and add one more culprit: spineless politicians who serve Wall Street and large corporations. Nothing will change until our politicians and laws provide some protection for American workers. Or, to put it another way, nothing will change until American voters elected politicians who represent the interests of working people.
Aljazeera America reports that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is backing a plan that will help Detroit workers save their pensions. That’s great news if it is true. Snyder is the man who brought emergency managers to strip out public wealth from poor cities throughout the state. Now he’s promising $350 million to offset what his own emergency manager in Detroit claims is an $18 billion debt. As Scott Walker in Wisconsin is promising voters big tax cuts, Snyder is trying to show that he really cares about poor people. What is this about? It’s time to run for re-election. If working people are gullible enough to elect leaders that work against their interest, they will get what they deserve.
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times featured a depressing article about the growth of low wage workers in Chicago from 2001-2011. Overall, the percentage of low wage workers grew from 23.8% to 31.2%. Workers with college or higher grew from 9.7% to 16.2%.
These numbers signify a much bigger problem: Workers are getting poorer and poorer, especially those paid by the hour. As I wrote a few days ago, politicians can make noise about “good jobs.” However, as long as the trend of lower wages continues, nothing good will happen in the economy. The working poor have no money to buy. The frightened middle save in fear of job loss or a health crisis. They don’t want to join the working poor.
I’m sick of hearing about American exceptionalism. 15% of Americans live in poverty. Millions of others work multiple low wage jobs to live just above the poverty line. Why should we be proud of this situation?
We've heard about the "job creators," the wealthy who should not have to pay taxes. Radio host Thom Hartmann put a different spin on this concept by referring to workers as "Wealth Creators." Hartmann said the real problem with our economy is that since the 1980s more and more of wealth created by working people in the form of increased productivity has gone to the wealthy, not working class or middle class people who would spend it.
Keep that in mind: Workers = Wealth Creators!