The Common Good
January-February 2000

Restoring Labor's Voice

by Chuck Collins | January-February 2000

A movement for a fair economy.

The economic boom has been a bust for people who work for wages. Behind the hoopla, families who depend on a paycheck, not a mutual fund, for their economic security have been stuck with two decades of stagnant wages. The richest 1 percent of the population now owns more than 40 percent of all private wealth, more than the bottom 95 percent of the population combined.

Economic inequality in America is at its greatest point since the 1920s. The social consequences of inequality are best symbolized by the fact that two of the nation’s biggest growth industries are prison construction (almost 2 million people behind bars) and the construction of gated residential communities (9 million households behind walls).

Two new books are fundamental tools in building a social movement to reverse these trends. They will be especially useful to people aspiring to put their faith values into action, but who stumble over the language of economics.

A fair economy movement is emerging in local living wage campaigns and in revitalized religious and labor coalitions. Robert Kuttner, editor of The American Prospect, calls living wage struggles "the most interesting (and under-reported) grassroots enterprise to emerge since the civil rights movement."

In 1994, the city of Baltimore passed the first living wage ordinance. Five years later, in more than 32 cities and counties—including San Antonio, Boston, Chicago, and Milwaukee—coalitions of labor, religious, and community activists have pushed successfully for the passage of living wage ordinances. There are currently 70 active municipal living wage campaigns organizing to institute laws that will require companies doing business with these cities to pay a living wage, usually pegged to the amount that would lift a family of three or four above the region’s poverty level.

In 1996, Los Angeles passed a living wage ordinance that requires companies with county contracts or subsidies to pay $7.25 an hour plus $1.25 per hour for workers without private health insurance. The ordinance initially covers more than 7,000 workers in a city where 35 percent of the workforce earns less than $7 an hour.

The Living Wage: Building A Fair Economy, by Robert Pollin and Stephanie Luce, is the first significant documentation of this emerging movement. While not a journalistic account of local victories or a handbook for winning campaigns, The Living Wage is a level-headed response to many of the key arguments that local activists encounter when advocating for a living wage.

Living wage proposals, as well as efforts to raise state and federal minimum wage levels, all encounter the same concerns: Will raising the minimum wage hurt low-wage workers by increasing unemployment? Will increased wages force small employers out of business? Pollin and Luce draw on both historical evidence and an analysis of several communities that have passed living wage ordinances to respond to these concerns.

THEIR VERDICT: Living wage ordinances have not increased unemployment, nor placed undue burdens on small businesses. The positive effect of boosting the wages of a targeted number of low-wage workers is enormous; in many cases lifting people over the poverty line and expanding health care, training, and vacation benefits. Taxpayers don’t have to subsidize "low-road" companies by supplementing their low wages with food stamps, housing subsidies, and emergency room health care for the uninsured. Even businesses benefit by increased morale and efficiency, more incentives to train employees, and reduced employee turnover.

The Living Wage explores how living wage movements can help revitalize urban communities. Pollin and Luce denigrate the "business subsidy model" of urban revitalization in which cities and states outbid each other in offering tax breaks, infrastructure grants, and other forms of "corporate welfare" to lure companies and jobs to their communities. The authors argue that living wage ordinances are part of a "high road" economic development approach that raises wages, supports and expands existing businesses, and offers limited subsidies to companies who agree to provide long-term community benefits.

Ultimately, the key to raising wages and revitalizing democracy is increasing the power of ordinary people in the economy and reining in the unchecked power of large corporations and big money interests. The decline in union power since the mid-1950s, when 35 percent of the workforce was unionized, has been the key factor in the erosion of the living standards for wage earners. Today, with less than 15 percent of the workforce in a union, the concerns of workers have diminished in public policy debates.

Religious activists are recognizing the necessity of building alliances with labor to strengthen the voice of ordinary working people in this country. What other configuration will serve as a countervailing moral and political force to the concentrated power and immorality of global corporations? Many of us, however, need a tutorial in the history and language of labor in order to build bridges to the struggles of low-wage workers.

R. Emmett Murray’s Lexicon of Labor rescues some of this "lost language" with a pithy encyclopedia of more than 500 key terms, biographical sketches, and historical insights concerning labor in America. Did you ever wonder what a "secondary boycott" is? Or a "closed shop"? Or who were the Knights of Labor? Who was Sidney Hillman? As a reference or a straight read, Murray’s book is a creative contribution to restoring the elusive tradition of labor’s voice in our economy.

A humorous bumper sticker—"The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend"—is a reminder of how we have benefited from earlier struggles and social movements. Yet even the weekend and the eight-hour day are slipping away or gone for a growing number of workers. Only a dynamic alignment of religious values and labor clout will reverse the slide.

—Chuck Collins

CHUCK COLLINS is the co-director of United for a Fair Economy in Boston. He is co-author of Shifting Fortunes: The Perils of the American Wealth Gap (United for a Fair Economy, 1999).

The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy. Robert Pollin and Stephanie Luce. The New Press, 1/1/98.

The Lexicon of Labor. R. Emmett Murray. The New Press, 1/1/98.

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