Legendary comedian Mort Sahl (who’s still alive and kicking, by the way) used to tell this joke during the Nixon administration. If a man were drowning 15-feet from shore, President Nixon would throw him a 10-foot rope. Then Henry Kissinger would go on television and declare that “the President had met him more than halfway.”
In his State of the Union speech (February 12), President Obama announced with great fanfare that he wanted to raise the federal minimum wage, in stages, from its present $7.25 per hour to $9.00 per hour by 2015.
There are at least three ways to interpret this announcement: (1) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce way (i.e., as ruinous to our national economy), (2) the Jay Carney (Obama’s press secretary), and Cody Keenan (Obama’s speech writer) way (i.e., as political dynamite), and (3) the minimum-wage worker’s way (i.e., as a step in the right direction).
Consider the numbers. If you’re a full-time worker—40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, with no days off—$9.00/hour computes to $18,720 per year, before any withholding is taken out. Yes, $18,720 is way better than the $15,080 you make at the present minimum of $7.25. But let’s be honest….you’re still very poor. No one is saying the minimum wage should propel folks into the middle-class, because, clearly, that wasn’t its intention. So Obama’s proposed bump is significant. But even at $9 per hour, you’re still poor. You’re just less poor.
As for exposing the bogus interpretation provided by the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and various Republican fat cats, all we need do is cite actual figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Even with near-record unemployment, the DOC reported in November of 2010 that U.S. companies just had their best quarter ever.
Repeat: THEIR BEST QUARTER EVER! Businesses recorded profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, which is the highest rate (in non-inflation-adjusted figures) since the government began keeping records more than 60 years ago.
The take-away from this astonishing statistic is obvious. All that talk about the recession having crippled the American business community was either an extravagant hoax or a wild exaggeration. In either case, it resulted in us witnessing the middle and lower-income class being victimized. The middle-class dwindled, the number of poor sky-rocketed, and the number of wealthy rose significantly.
Clearly, there is money to be made by working people. The hard part is finding a way to get employers to part with it. An increase in the minimum wage is one method of doing it, but because it requires government sponsorship, it’s an undependable and inadequate method. A far better way is for the workers to hire an agent to negotiate better wages, benefits and working conditions. Hire an agent whose sole job is to represent working people. In other words, a labor union.
Of all the lies told to the American worker (and there have been some whoppers), the biggest one of all is that labor and management do not have to be adversaries—that an adversarial relationship is, in fact, counterproductive. Management constantly tells workers that “they (labor and management) both want the same thing.” That is an outright lie. Those Dept. of Commerce figures prove it.
Workers want a larger slice of the pie, and management wants to prevent them from getting it. Owners want to pay their workers as little as possible. That’s the nature of business, and that’s the unvarnished crux of the relationship. Only when we admit that the management-labor dynamic is fundamentally adversarial in nature, will we begin to make progress. Save those cornball, touchy-feely slogans for Madison Avenue.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org