Does America need a raise?

WHEN I THINK OF WORKERS' RIGHTS, I remember a letter I received from a man from East Lansing, Michigan.

"As a conservative Republican, I suspect you and I part company on most political issues," he wrote. "But as a fellow Catholic, I believe in just wages and an equitable distribution of profits." He expressed his concern about an economy where corporate chief executives' salaries are skyrocketing while most working people's are stagnating.

This man speaks for Americans of every faith, political viewpoint, and walk of life who believe that the way working people are treated in the new economy violates the values of our society.

Along with family, faith, and community, the dignity of work is a fundamental value for Americans. We believe that working people should earn a living wage so that they can support themselves and their families.

Just as important, we believe that people who contribute their work to their world are entitled to a measure of respect. That is why black workers rebelled against their supervisors calling them by their first names. That is why working women refuse to accept sexual harassment and second-class status. That is why working people have always demanded fair systems for resolving problems and making promotions. And that is why today's working people are demanding a stronger voice in improving the products they make and the services they provide.

These concerns address the basic human need for dignity on the job. And these concerns have a special resonance for Catholics, for we believe in a society where the individual is valued as a child of God and where justice is done. I think of workers' rights not just in terms of recent trends in real wages or the latest decisions by the National Labor Relations Board but in the larger sense of the rewards and respect that working people receive, on and off the job.

But when asked if workers' rights have eroded, I have a simple answer: yes.

Americans who came of age during the three decades after World War II can remember a set of understandings—a social contract, if you will—that honored work and rewarded working people.

Working people knew that, if they got up every morning and did well on their jobs, they could earn a better life for themselves and a better chance for their children. Business people knew that, if they paid their workers fairly and plowed some of their profits back into their communities, they could count on loyal employees and loyal consumers. And our leaders in government understood that, as President Kennedy said, "A rising tide lifts all boats." Our entire society was dedicated to raising the standard of living for all, not just accumulating enormous wealth for a fortunate few.

Much of the credit for this postwar social contract should go to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. By guaranteeing working Americans the right to organize unions and bargain with their employers, it provided a way for people to get a fair share of the wealth they produced. In addition, it gave corporate America a powerful reason to treat their employees fairly and respectfully because if a company mistreated its employees, they could organize a union. During the glory days of postwar prosperity, a strong labor movement set the tone for the treatment of working Americans, not just in nonunionized companies but throughout much of the economy. The union contract was often the strongest guarantee of the social contract.

The postwar social contract benefited not only our standard of living but also the standards by which we lived. It was possible for wage earners to support their families with the paychecks from one good-paying job, particularly if the pay was union scale. Because working people had more time to spend as they chose, they built strong families—and strong communities as well. Voluntary organizations flourished, from PTAs and Little Leagues to church and synagogue groups, scout groups, and political clubs. Yes, America had terrible injustices, but the struggles for civil rights and women's rights were an expression of the energy and optimism of the America of the postwar social contract.

Times have changed
Over the past 20 years, that social contract has broken down—with terrible consequences for our values as well as for our incomes. Real wages—that is, earnings after inflation is taken into account—have stagnated or even declined for the great majority of working people. Working men and women are putting in longer hours and often taking second jobs, just to stay even. Inequalities in wages and wealth have been magnified. At last count, the average chief executive officer of a large corporation earned 145 times more than the average worker.

These facts are familiar. What's less widely understood are their causes and consequences, morally and materially.

In most accounts of how wages have stagnated and inequalities have increased, several explanations are offered: the emergence of the global economy, the growth of new technologies, and the deregulation of major industries. These explanations are accurate as far as they go, but they ignore two other, equally important trends. First, corporate America made a conscious decision to compete in the global economy by driving down living standards for working people. And, second, public policies, particularly during the Reagan and Bush administrations, helped corporate America break unions, cut wages, and eliminate jobs.

These corporate and governmental strategies took a terrible toll. More than 43 million jobs were eliminated during corporate downsizings from 1979 through 1995, and Labor Department statistics reveal that only about 35 percent of these workers found new jobs that pay as well as or better than their old ones. In place of full-time, good-paying jobs with benefits, a new economic underworld is emerging of temporary employees, part-timers, "independent contractors," and other members of the "contingent workforce." These jobs have some things in common: low wages, a lack of health insurance and pension benefits, and few, if any, basic legal protections for their health and safety on the job, their retirement security, and their right to overtime pay.

Another right that working people—full time as well as part time or temporary—are losing is the right to organize and bargain with employers. Starting in the '70s, corporate America has used brass-knuckle tactics to prevent their employees from organizing unions. Leading the way, the National Association of Manufacturers created the Council on a Union-Free Environment. A new $500 million-a-year industry emerged: lawyers, management consultants, and industrial psychologists all primed to help companies defeat organizing campaigns, drive unions out of workplaces, and drag out contract negotiations to the point where workers would settle for cuts in pay and benefits.

With enormous resources and expert help, corporations were able to exploit every loophole on labor law and thus make a mockery of the election process administered by the National Labor Relations Board. During the '80s and early '90s, the board itself, dominated by Reagan and Bush employees, failed to enforce the spirit of the law that once was called "Labor's Magna Carta." Thus, Harvard Law Professor Paul Weiler has estimated that one out of every 20 workers who support organizing campaigns is fired simply for exercising what should be a fundamental right. Indeed, of every right that Americans enjoy—the right to speak, to write, to vote, and to worship as we choose—none is riskier than the right to organize a union.

One of the saddest indications of the erosion of workers' rights is how companies make union-organizing campaigns a hellish experience for working people. In testimony before a presidential commission on labor law, department-store employee Judy Ray told how her company harassed and eventually fired her because she has supported a union organizing effort.

"I was a ten-year employee of Jordan Marsh in Peabody [Massachusetts], up until this day after Thanksgiving, on which I was fired. I was fired, I truly believe, solely because I was a union organizer within the store.

"I cannot impress upon you . . . what an employee who is just fighting for their rights in a campaign goes through in this day and age. I have been followed on my day off, to restaurants, by security guards with walkie-talkies. I had an employee, a management person, assigned to work with me eight hours a day, five days a week, who was told he was there solely to work on me, to change my ideas about unions.

"I was timed when I had to go to the bathroom. I could go nowhere in my workplace without being followed."

Something's being lost in America.
It's more than living standards and legal rights. It's the strength of our families and communities. And it's our sense of control over our own lives and our confidence in larger institutions, from business to government.

As they work long hours for stagnant wages, parents have less time to spend with their own children and to teach them the difference between right and wrong. As a working parent from North Carolina said:

"I'm concerned about a breakdown in the family as far as values. I don't know whether it's due to families where both husband and wife and maybe a child need to be working outside the home in order to maintain some semblance of a lifestyle—not an extravagant one, but just a lifestyle."

People who have little time for their own families have even less time to spare for their communities. That is an important reason why civic activity is declining across America.

Meanwhile, working Americans also feel a loss of loyalty from corporate America. A retired laborer in Philadelphia told a discussion group sponsored by the AFL-CIO:

"There is no longer the relationship that once did exist between company and employee, where there was a bond, a family type of feeling. Today, it's a 'me' feeling: What's the bottom line? What am I going to get out of it? And we become expendable. I think that the situation is ugly, not only for us as workers, but for us as a country."

He's right. That sense of betrayal is alienating working Americans from business and government. In a survey of a cross section of workers sponsored this spring by the AFL-CIO, 70 percent said the most important reason for their economic problems is that "corporations have become too greedy." Moreover, most working people said that companies aren't loyal to them and are boosting short-term profits, stock prices, and executive salaries at the expense of their employees. Only 29 percent believe that companies have been downsizing and outsourcing because they are "doing what they have to do" to compete in the new global economy.

The same survey also found that working Americans are angry at their government. In fact, their disillusionment reflects a more sophisticated understanding than is usually reported. Working Americans believe that government is taxing them too heavily, while letting the wealthy get away without paying their fair share. In addition, working people fault government for failing to fix the health-care crisis, restrict speculation and corporate takeovers, or win a level playing field for American goods and services in international trade.

Americans are increasingly angry not only at business and government but at each other as well. The recent wave of bombings of African-American churches is simply the most recent sign of a society that's becoming edgier and angrier.

So what can we do about these social and economic problems?
As a trade unionist, as a person of faith, and simply as a citizen, I believe Americans must do everything we can to restore workers' rights in the largest sense of that phrase. We need to lift living standards, bring back a sense of respect on the job, and do everything we can to support and strengthen working families.

America took some steps in that direction during the first two years of the Clinton administration. And, even during 1995 and 1996, in the face of a Congress that seems determined to repeal the past 60 years of social decency, the damage has been less severe than one might have feared. The expansion of tax credits for the working poor, the push to raise the minimum wage, the improvements in education and training programs, and the growth of new jobs in the economy all are encouraging signs.

But, still, it is sadly true that living standards are stuck, inequalities are increasing, and our society seems fractured along the lines of class and culture. In short, as the new leadership of the AFL-CIO keeps saying: "America needs a raise." By that, we mean more than the undeniable fact that working people need secure jobs with rising wages. We also mean that working Americans need a lift in their spirits as well as their living standards—the sense that they are indispensable, and not expendable, for their companies and their country.

So how can we get America a raise?
It should come as no surprise that I believe that the ultimate answer is to build a new movement for economic security and social justice that will have, at its core, a stronger and more vibrant labor movement.

For every problem plaguing working Americans, the common element is that Americans have too little power over their lives and livelihoods. For instance, as long as most working people lack leverage over their employers, they'll have a hard time winning wage increases. As long as labor laws are tilted toward employers, building unions in most workplaces will be difficult—not impossible, but difficult. And, until working people have a stronger voice in national politics, we will never be able to change the laws.

That is why the solution to working people's problems, small and large, is, to borrow a phrase from people of faith, a "seamless garment of activism."

You can see signs of this new activism in communities across the country. From asbestos workers in New York City to textile and poultry workers throughout the South and janitors and nursing-home workers throughout the nation, working people are organizing themselves, with assistance from the labor movement. Largely as a result of an effort to build a grassroots political-education program, a growing number of Republican representatives are breaking party ranks to support an increase in the minimum wage. At hearings in communities in every part of the country, working men and women have been telling public officials, the news media, and the general public why America needs a raise. And, in dozens of communities, young men and women have been participating in "Union Summer," working on union organizing campaigns and political initiatives, as well as building support for organizing drives and issues such as raising the minimum wage.

The movement seeks to build both a means to larger goals and an accomplishment in itself. As it brings together working people from many backgrounds and occupations, it will help to heal some of the rifts in our society and restore a sense of community and common purpose.

With the support of Americans of goodwill who may never join unions themselves but who share the same goals of restoring the dignity of work, Americans can move forward together.

And, dear reader, I'm counting on you, too.

John Sweeney is president of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 78 labor unions representing some 13.6 million workers.

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