Time to Get Paid

American workers today face declining job security and dwindling earnings as companies downsize, move overseas, and shift more jobs to part-time workers. A 2009 survey by the Economic Policy Institute found that one or more members of 44 percent of American families had experienced job loss, a reduction in hours, or a cut in pay over the previous year. For the vast majority of workers, the costs of basic necessities are rising faster than income.

The government has ample powers to change these trends for the better. Back in the days of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Republican critics liked to say that the best antipoverty program is a job. The federal government has the capacity–and the responsibility–to promote full employment, a situation in which everyone who wants to work has a job. But the kind of job is as important as the job itself.

A good job means one that pays enough to allow a family to buy or rent a decent home, put food on the table and clothes on their backs, afford health insurance and child care, send the kids to college, take a yearly vacation, and retire with dignity. A good job means that two parents don’t have to juggle three jobs to stay afloat, and that they still have time to spend with their kids.

For most people, losing their job, their life savings, their pension, a portion of their earnings, or their home is traumatic, even when it’s through no fault of their own. Our individualistic culture leads people to blame themselves and to think of themselves as failures.

Harvey Brenner is a longtime student of the correlations between economic fluctuations and mental and physical health. According to Brenner, who is a sociologist and a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Texas Health Science Center, for every 1 percent rise in the unemployment rate (about 1.5 million more people out of work), society can anticipate 47,000 more deaths, including 26,000 fatal heart attacks, 1,200 suicides, 831 murders, and 635 related to alcohol consumption.

Moreover, the symptoms, much like posttraumatic stress disorder in wartime, may become chronic, lasting even after people find work again. Psychological depression, troubled marriages, and loss of self-confidence don’t just go away when the economic recession ends. Economic hardship leaves behind a trail of wounded people who never fully recover.

Decent wages are necessary for social stability and for the purchasing power that the economy needs to trigger and sustain a strong recovery. The explosion of low-wage jobs is not the result of workers having inadequate education or skills. Over the past two decades, both education levels and skills have improved, while incomes have stagnated. This troubling trend is due, for the most part, to the declining bargaining power of America’s employees.

Consider the case of two newly hired security guards with the same level of education who work in downtown Los Angeles for Securitas, the nation’s largest security company, with $8.7 billion in worldwide revenues in 2009. Jose and Bill work in two of L.A.’s large office buildings. Jose’s starting pay is $11.50 an hour with paid health insurance as well as two sick days, five paid holidays, five vacation days (increasing to ten days after five years), three paid bereavement days, and a uniform allowance of $2 a day. Bill starts at $8 an hour (the state minimum wage) and gets no health insurance or any other benefits. What accounts for the difference? Jose is a member of the Service Employees International Union, which has a collective-bargaining agreement with Securitas, while Bill is on his own, with no union contract.

Multiply this example millions of times, across different job categories and industries, and you get a sense that, contrary to business propaganda, unions are actually good for the economy.

Los Angeles provides a good illustration of how unions strengthen worker purchasing power and the economy. Accord­ing to a December 2007 study by the Economic Round­table, union workers in Los Angeles County earn 27 percent more than nonunion workers doing the same jobs. The higher wages for the L.A. union workers–who number about 800,000, or 15 percent of the workforce–add $7.2 billion a year in earnings. And there is a multiplier effect. As these workers purchased housing, food, clothing, child care, and other items, their consumption power created an additional 307,100 jobs, or 64,800 more than would have been produced without the higher union wages. The union wages also yield about $7 billion in taxes to various levels of government.

Some business leaders argue that American employees are simply antiunion, a consequence of our culture’s strong individualistic ethic and opposition to unions as uninvited “third parties” between employers and their employees. Antiunion attitudes, business groups claim, account for the decline in union membership, which peaked at 35 percent of the public and private workforce in the 1950s and is now 12.3 percent.

But this story leaves out four decades of corporate union-bashing that has increased the risk that workers take when they seek union representation. In a variety of opinion polls, American employees  said they would join a union if they could. But they won’t vote for a union, much less participate openly in a union organizing drive, if they fear they will lose their job or be otherwise punished or harassed at work for doing so.

There’s the rub. Americans have far fewer rights at work than employees in other democratic societies. Current fed­eral laws are an impediment to union organizing rather than a protector of workers’ rights. The rules are stacked against workers, making it extremely difficult for even the most talented organizers to win union elections. Under current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regulations, any employer with a clever attorney can stall union elections, giving management time to scare the living daylights out of potential recruits.

According to Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner, it is standard practice for corporations to subject workers to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity during organizing campaigns. One-third of all employers illegally fire at least one employee. Some workers get reinstated, but it often takes years and exhaustive court battles. Penalties for these violations are so minimal that most employers treat them as a minor cost of doing business. Employees who initially sign union cards are often long gone or too afraid to vote by the time the NLRB conducts an election. Large employers spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to hire antiunion consultants in order to intimidate workers from participating in or showing support for union campaigns.

Even with passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)–first introduced in Congress in 2009, and still pending–employees would still need to mount campaigns to persuade fellow workers to join a union and then win a decent contract. But EFCA, which would punish employers who discriminate against union organizers, would provide greater balance between employees and employers in the workplace. This would make it more likely that union organizing campaigns would succeed, that workers would have better-paying jobs, that the ripple effects of union pay would improve the overall economy, and that the political influence of the labor movement would help the nation enact more progressive policies to make America a more humane society.

Excerpted from The American Prospect (Oct. 2010), a monthly magazine designed to demonstrate that progressive ideals can animate majority politics, and the 2010 Utne Independent Press Award winner for political coverage. www.prospect.org

Panel image by zzzack, licensed under Creative Commons.

This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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