The Best Hope for Working Poor

St. Petersburg Times
Sunday 25 April 2004

The Best Hope for Working Poor
By Robyn E. Blumner

"The man who washes cars does not own one. The clerk who files cancelled checks at the bank has $2.02 in her own account. The woman who copy-edits medical textbooks has not been to a dentist in a decade."

"This is the forgotten America," David Shipler reminds us in his impressive new book, The Working Poor.

Tens of millions of Americans like these live at the very edge of destitution. They work 40 hours or more a week, sometimes in two or three jobs, but cannot make enough to lift themselves onto a stable rung of the economic ladder. To have a roof overhead, many rely on government-subsidized housing. To feed their families, they look to food stamps and subsidized school lunches, and for medical care, they fall back on government-funded medically needy programs or arrive at the local emergency room where they have to be seen even if they can't pay.

We may think rock-bottom prices for DVDs and crock pots at stores like Wal-Mart are a boon to our household budgets, but the social costs are incalculably high. Essentially, we are underwriting cheap and exploitive employers with welfare programs and the earned income tax credit, a subsidy paid to low-wage workers that supplements the paltry pay of "greeters" and cashiers, burger-flippers and hotel maids. Meanwhile these jobs are creating a permanent underclass. Anyone making $8 per hour – the average wage at Wal-Mart – is still well below the federal poverty line of $18,850 for a family of one adult and three children.

More government subsidies for child care, transportation and housing to make life bearable for the working poor are not the answer. Instead, we should be demanding that low-skilled jobs start paying enough so workers can support their families and build a future.

We decry the exodus of decent manufacturing jobs that once offered unskilled workers health insurance, pensions and living wages. But with the inexorable pull of globalization those jobs are gone for good. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor is widening without any discernable concern from those at the top end. Greedy executives think nothing of making obscene salaries, thousands of times more than their lowest-paid workers. In 2003, the average CEO of a major company received $9.2-million in total compensation, while the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour provides full-time employees a gross annual income of $10,712. Trickle down is feeling more like spit upon.

This is unhealthy and unstable. It is in our nation's long-term interest to address these gaping disparities. People in difficult economic straits, who see no reasonable hope for future advancement, are not invested in society. With no stake in the status quo, a restlessness can take hold. For our own security, the bedrock promise of America – that of upward mobility into a broad and thriving middle class – needs to be revived.

That's why it is time to reassess. We have to make service economy jobs – those that cannot be outsourced overseas – better. Why did manufacturing jobs in their heyday pay so well? There is nothing inherent about putting together widgets that would warrant $40 an hour in wages and benefits.

Here's the answer: unions. The existence of the UAW is the primary reason that General Motors pays more than $25 per hour for assembly line work in addition to generous health and retirement benefits.

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, a factory job offered low pay, long hours and dangerous conditions. At that time, men like Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs and the fiery "Big" Bill Haywood inspired worker movements for better and fairer terms. Soon, the landscape of employment began to change.

Unions have taken a battering since those heady beginnings. Union membership stood at more than 35 percent of the work force at the end of World War II and has dwindled to less than 13 percent. By and large, unions have only themselves to blame. Corruption, mob infiltration, counterproductive rigidity and unbridled self-dealing transformed too many unions into organizations that oppressed the work force as much as management did.

Yet these failings do not cancel the good that unions do any more than corporate scandals negate all of capitalism. Unionism is still the best hope for the working poor.

Look at the grocery sector. Nationwide, major supermarket chains with unions pay their employees an average of $19 per hour in wages and benefits. But those chains are starting to demand employee concessions as the fiercely nonunion Wal-Mart starts taking over a bigger piece of the grocery business – driving down prices and driving out competition. Seventy thousand unionized supermarket workers in California went on strike last year, pushing back against the race to the bottom Wal-Mart is engendering.

Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the country, has been accused of busting all attempts at unionization, hiring janitorial contractors who employ and exploit illegal aliens, and of cheating employees by making them work "off the clock." If this nation is to continue to be the land of opportunity, such practices cannot become the norm. "Workers Unite" is a cry we need to hear again.

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