Last week in downtown Chicago, four lads break-danced on the Federal Plaza to exhibit why this year’s Labor Day provides opportunity for both merriment and dissent.
The dancers — black, Latino, white, all giving a fabulous performance — were fast-food and retail employees on strike on August 29 for $15-an-hour pay demand and the privilege to put up a union without reprisal. They were joined by about 400 other low-salary workers from over 60 businesses assembling for a festivity after a day of expressing their chief demands — with particular added corresponding demands for each workplace — to their companies, which, from McDonald’s to Sears, form a Who’s Who of trademark fast-food and retail firms.
It was the third wave for several workers involved in the protracted strike which started last November in New York, with Chicago conducting protest marches late in 2012 as well, and stretched into July to five other traditional union capitals. On Thursday — immediately after the 50th commemoration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — thousands of workers from a total of about 60 cities participated in a national day of demonstration, the biggest so far. Strikes flashed in the South, in such cities as Raleigh, N.C. and Memphis, Tenn., and in minor Northern cities, such as Bloomington and Peoria, Ill. In tiny Ellsworth, Maine, a town-labor crowd showed support for higher pay for fast-food workers although no one went on strike. In a few instances, workers seemed to have assembled after getting wind of the prior actions, calling everyone they knew to ask how they could join in the succeeding strike.
The motive behind this euphoric rush of activity consists of several reasons why it is badly needed — slow job-growth, underemployment, fixed or decreasing wages, weak labor standards, a hindered union progress, growing inequality, a work-related arrangement shifting toward more low-salary service jobs, and prevalent abuse of power by the very wealthy few.
The decrease in the official rate of unemployment hides the level at which American employees face a very bleak future in labor. A big part of the improvement in the unemployment rate merely shows an increase in the number of disheartened or “marginally attached” workers (people seeking jobs who have ceased doing so). The portion of the workforce holding part-time jobs involuntarily has also grown.
Such drop in the demand for labor, besides the waning power of unions and the slashes in salary demanded by both public and private employers (frequently associated with outsourcing or, at public employers, privatizing), keeps down — or further depresses — incomes that had not improved much even from 2000 to 2007, when the recession set in. Between 2007 and 2012, while productivity improved by 7.7 percent, salaries dipped for the lowest 70 percent of the workforce, according to a report released recently by the Economic Policy Institute through its researchers Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz.
The weakness of the labor movement, particularly in rising, low-income sectors like retail and fast-food, is responsible for much of the decline; but the waning value of the minimum wage holds a big role. According to another recent EPI study, by Sylvia Allegretto and Steven C. Pitts, if the federal government reinstituted the minimum salary to its maximum rate in 1968, the minimum salary would be $9.44 at present in inflation-adjusted dollars, not $7.25. And if it corresponded in real terms the $2.00 minimum salary demanded 50 years ago by the March on Washington, the minimum wage would be $13.39 — close to the striking fast-food workers’ demand and to the minimum in many advanced countries (about $12 per hour in France and $15 per hour in Australia, for cite a few). If the minimum salary had increased as much as labor productivity since 1968, it would be $22 per hour.
Any increase in the federal minimum would principally aid people of color and women, Allegretto and Pitts say. Contrary to stereotypes of low-income employees such as teenagers, a hike would benefit many adult, family-earning workers. In a report for EPI published in March, David Cooper and Dan Essrow estimated that with even the slight $10.10 minimum proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the mean age of low-wage employees whose wage would likely increase is 35. Eighty-eight percent are above 20 years old, and 35.5 percent are 40 years old or more. Moreover, 44 percent of the beneficiaries would be employees with some college schooling, and 28 percent with offspring.
The predicament of low-salary workers is turning into an even more severe problem as the country’s occupational structure, that is, the types of jobs being created or maintained, has altered. According to Daniel Alpert of the Century Foundation, 70 percent of the jobs created in the second quarter of 2013 were low-salary, such as retail and hospitality jobs, about twice the percentage of such jobs in the general workforce. And over 50 percent of all fresh jobs in the first semester of 2013 were part-time.
Incomes have grown for the highest 5 percent, however, chiefly, the wealthiest. The top 1 percent — principally, executives and financial managers — garnered 121 percent of the country’s new income within the first two years of the recovery, according to University of California, Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez. How do they do that? Essentially, they siphon all national income proceeds to themselves while concurrently capturing more from the 99 percent.
Observing more closely shows an even uglier picture. The success of the very rich frequently involves large components of chicanery, deception and misuse of public resources, according to a fresh study, “Bailed Out, Booted, Busted,” the 20th yearly Labor Day publication of the Executive Excess reports from the Institute for Policy Studies. The researchers gathered information from 20 years of their studies, which depended on yearly Wall Street Journal surveys of CEO compensation.
Their ultimate survey involved 500 CEOS — the 25 highest-paid CEOs annually for twenty years. IPS reports that 38 percent of these CEOs had performed very badly as executives of their companies. Of those poor performers, 22 percent of the top salary leaders brought their companies into bankruptcy or bailout; 8 percent were fired (but received golden parachutes worth an average of $38 million); and 8 percent were convicted of fraud.
Then there are plainly the outrageously over-paid, raking in above $1 billion during their term, and other executives who served themselves from the “taxpayer trough,” collecting top salary while their firms gained from major government contracts.
Any shift toward equal opportunity will have to stop the excess at the peak as well as uplift the bottom. But more than achieving essential justice, society would gain more benefits — quicker and more solid growth (and therefore a faster, more healthful recovery); lower crime rates; lesser social tension; a more stable democracy; and better health, longer life and lower medical expenses, to mention only a few. (See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level.)
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was not mouthing hollow words, but rather practical wisdom, when she spoke to strikers in Chicago, “These workers are among thousands and thousands of low-income workers around the nation, who have a truly reasonable and simple demand, which is to be given a living wage. …These are the producers; they are the takers. I want to thank these courageous workers who walked out. They are doing it for themselves and they are doing it also for America.”
And it appears the strikers are doing it their way, with people volunteering and reaching out to other employees to pass on the word. Most activities involve raps composed by strikers about their work, and protest methods color their choices. For example, in Chicago, the protesters this time aimed to take action at every store where somebody walked out, not merely a couple of chosen special targets, as in the July strike. And they wanted to hold a celebration at the final moment. If the fast-food struggle succeeds, it will be a product of that radical attitude.
The spirit was present in the break-dance — introduced in Spanish and English, as all the events were presented before the crowd of balance-mixed ethnicities, performed under a streamer declaring, “Fight for 15, Valemos Mas.” Dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” a couple of mock-suited “CEO” dancers faced off with two other workers from Potbelly’s.
The workers triumphed, of course! No, it was not Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers performing “Roll the Union On” this time. But Pete would have certainly approved.