As Labor Day approaches the eyes of the nation are on jobs. How can we get Americans back to work, and how quickly? How can we make sure that the jobs created are good jobs and that economic vitality, once it is restored, benefits everyone — not just those at the top?
Working families are struggling to recover from the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression. Wages are flat, unemployment is the highest in 25 years and costs for everything from food to health care are rising. Meanwhile, corporate CEOs who contributed mightily to this mess are escaping accountability in their taxpayer financed golden parachutes.
It wasn’t always like this. Thirty years ago chief executives in the United States made 30 to 40 times the average American worker’s paycheck. Today, CEOs make some 344 times the pay of an average worker, according to a joint study by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy. Think of what that means for people in Maine, for whom the median household income is $45,832.
For the last 30 years, the way our country did business was backward. Our economy was structured to favor short-term gains for moneyed interests, ignoring the interests of working people, who began to rely on rising levels of debt to try to maintain their living standards. It was unsustainable, and it came crashing down.
At the beginning of this year, we were standing at the edge of an economic precipice far worse than most people realized. We were pulled back from the edge by President Barack Obama’s economic recovery package, which — contrary to the claims of the naysayers — is beginning to work. But we still need jobs, and lots of them. In Maine, 8.4 percent of people are unemployed. That’s why we need even more economic investments to jump-start shovel-ready projects that will rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and get people back to work.
But more low-wage, low-benefit jobs won’t cut it. It’s important that we create good, family-supporting jobs, and that means restoring workers’ freedom to bargain for higher standards and better lives. Workers in unions are 52 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage and nearly three times more likely to have pensions. And they take home 28 percent more than their nonunion counterparts. It’s no surprise that more than half of U.S. workers —nearly 60 million — say they would join a union if they could.
Unfortunately, too few American workers ever get the chance to join unions. The current company-dominated system robs workers of the freedom to make their own choice to join a union or not. Companies routinely intimidate, harass, coerce and fire union supporters under current law and there is no price to pay. According to Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, 25 percent of the time employers fire at least one union supporter during an organizing campaign.
Even when workers manage to defy the odds and win a union, more than half the time they cannot secure a first contract in a year’s time. That’s because current labor law fails workers by giving their employers incentives to drag their feet in contract negotiations. Anti-union employers can thwart the will of the majority of their employees simply by refusing to negotiate in good faith.
It’s time we turn this economy around for good. We must look toward the future and invest in creating good, green jobs. We must fix health care, now. And we must restore the freedom of America’s workers to bargain and restore balance to our economy.
We know from our own lives that change is possible. Women and people of color faced powerful adversaries determined to defeat their movements and maintain what was an oppressive and unjust status quo. Those struggles are not nearly over, but we have made enormous gains.
Making fundamental investments in good jobs, health care, labor law reform and a sustainable economy is the next big, necessary step. It will give people of all backgrounds access to the ladder they need to climb out of poverty and into the middle class.
Corporate CEOs and their friends on Capitol Hill have had their way for years. This Labor Day, let’s all take a moment to contact our elected representatives and let them know it’s time to turn America around so our economy works for everyone.
Edward Gorham is president of the Maine AFL-CIO. Arlene Holt Baker is executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.