Widening income inequality gap gives workers little to celebrate this Labor Day

We would like to wish you a happy Labor Day, but for a substantial percentage of underpaid local workers, there is not a lot to celebrate.

This holiday was meant to honor the dignity of working people and the vital role of the labor movement, which won so many of the working conditions we take for granted, such as the eight-hour day, paid holidays, and weekends off.

But today, just 10.5 percent of American workers belong to unions, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. Non-union workers make just 82 percent of union members’ wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even for many union members, housing and other costs are rising far faster than wages.

The United Way reports that “Despite a low rate of inflation nationwide – 9 percent from 2010 to 2016 – the bare minimum household survival budget increased by 27 percent for a single adult and 28 percent for a family of four. Affording only a very modest living, this budget is still significantly more than the Federal Poverty Level of $11,880 for a single adult and $24,300 for a family.”

United Way estimates the “bare minimum household survival budget” – including housing, health care, transportation, child care and other necessities – to be “$62,472 for a family of four (two adults with one infant and one preschooler) and $21,252 for a single adult.”

Thirty-eight percent of households in Washington are below this threshold, and 11 percent are below the federal poverty level, according to the United Way.

Nationally, about 42 percent of all workers make $15 an hour or less – with predictably higher percentages for women, African-Americans and Latinos.

These working people have not benefited much from the past 10 years of economic recovery, and the threat of a coming recession poses the greatest danger to their well-being.

Now, more than ever, their voices need to be raised – in elections, in the workplace, and in unions.

There are many reasons for rising economic inequality. Anti-union legislation and court decisions, the out-sized influence of corporate money on politics, and structural changes that have more people working part-time or as contractors all play a role.

Timm Ormsby, chair of the House Budget Committee in the Washington state legislature and President of the Spokane Regional Labor Council, has a long list of other barriers that must also be overcome to revive the power of working people to win better wages. These range from cultural attitudes that value individual success over collective advancement, the rise of the gig economy where people cobble together a living from multiple projects, and the sense that unions are no longer needed because they’ve already accomplished the goal of a 40-hour workweek and other basic protections.

Nonetheless, Ormsby is an optimist about a revival of union membership and effectiveness. He sees hope in millennials, women and immigrants – groups among which unions poll well.

“We all bring our own experience to the table,” he says, “but the experience has changed for younger workers. Unions have been operating on the workplace of 30 years ago – a less diverse, mostly older crowd. But the days of 30 years and a gold watch are over. We need to empower younger workers by putting them in leadership positions, and then listening to them. They can rewrite the book. A new day calls for a new approach.”

Unions, he says, “have gotten better, but not at the pace of workplace change.” In his view, the good news is that “in the past five years, the old guard is transitioning out of leadership and new, dynamic, values-based leaders are emerging.”

It’s not yet clear how unions can grow and be effective in the 21st century economy, which is so radically different from the conditions that gave rise to unions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But a new generation of union leaders does give rise to hope that new ideas and approaches will be equal to this daunting challenge.

What is abundantly clear is that if working people want to reverse the dismal trend toward ever-wider income inequality, we need to start by recognizing that no one is going to do it for us, and that none of us can do it alone.