FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Collective Bargaining and the Minimum Wage

by MARK WEISBROT

Last week, the New York Times reported that “Democratic Party leaders … have found an issue they believe can lift their fortunes both locally and nationally in 2014: an increase in the minimum wage.”

This is a good signal that millions of underpaid workers in the world’s richest country will finally get a raise. It’s not a done deal yet, but it’s worth looking at how we got to this point.

Although the fact that the majority of Americans were not sharing in the gains from economic growth had been well known and well documented for decades, it was not a significant political issue until a grassroots movement, known as Occupy Wall Street, made it one.  This movement put forth a political framework that highlighted the conflict between “the 1 percent” – the people who had greatly profited from the run-up to the Great Recession – and the 99 percent who had paid the price for the greed and excess of Wall Street and the rich.

This caused the media to notice and report much more on the problem of rising inequality.  Economists, researchers, and think tanks whose work on these issues had long been ignored by the media began to get more play in the media.  Public awareness increased.   A 2011 poll in the wake of the Occupy movement found that 66 percent of the public thought there were “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between rich and poor, up from 47 percent just two years earlier.   Some politicians began to speak out about these issues.  Mayoral candidate  Bill DeBlasio made New York City’s Latin American levels of inequality his main campaign theme – “A Tale of Two Cities,” he called it – and won a landslide victory in November.

Although the Occupy movement faded – partly due to a heavy dose of police repression driving them from public spaces – other forms of mass organizing around these issues emerged.  Fast-food workers organized walkouts and protests that spread to 60 cities across the country last August.  This brought their story – of parents struggling to feed their children and pay their rent on an average of $9.00 an hour (with many making the federal minimum of $7.25) – to a bigger audience.  The public discovered that the majority of fast food workers were not teenagers; more than a quarter are raising at least one child.

On December 4, President Obama made a speech about what he called the “relentless, decades-long-trend” of “dangerous and growing inequality.”  Unfortunately he did not seem to notice the deliberate government policies that had been the major cause of this decades-long trend.  But his speech was noteworthy and unusual for a U.S. president:

Since 1979,” he said, “when I graduated from high school, our productivity is up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than eight percent.  Since 1979, our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to a fortunate few.

For decades, presidents would not hammer like this on such a theme for fear that the major media would accuse them of fomenting “class warfare.” But the political climate had changed.  Obama also pledged to “keep pushing until we get a higher minimum wage,” and took the time to refute the tired arguments against the minimum wage that have long been discredited by economic research.

So there you have it: a combination of grassroots action by activists and organized workers, and public education, changed public consciousness to the point where politicians and their pollsters recognize that there is political profit to be made by raising the minimum wage. When this history is written, the actual cause of the reform will go largely unnoticed.

Unfortunately the White House-supported increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 over two years – important as it is – will not reverse that much of the damage of the past four decades. Now imagine a movement for labor law reform, of the kind that President Obama promised to support in his 2008 presidential campaign: in particular, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would restore the rights of U.S. workers – vastly degraded since 1980 — to form unions and bargain collectively. Of course the big business lobbies would fight it much harder than a minimum wage increase.  But in 2009, when the Democrats had the Congress as well as the presidency, there was at least a possibility.

Restoring collective bargaining rights would be a structural reform that could change the country; and sooner or later there will be enough grassroots organizing to make it a reality.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This essay originally ran in Economic Intelligence.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

More articles by:
July 25, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
As the Election Turns: Trump the Anti-Neocon, Hillary the New Darling of the Neocons
Ted Rall
Hillary’s Strategy: Snub Liberal Democrats, Move Right to Nab Anti-Trump Republicans
William K. Black
Doubling Down on Wall Street: Hillary and Tim Kaine
Russell Mokhiber
Bernie Delegates Take on Bernie Sanders
Quincy Saul
Resurgent Mexico
Andy Thayer
Letter to a Bernie Activist
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan is Strengthened by the Failed Coup, But Turkey is the Loser
Robert Fisk
The Hypocrisies of Terror Talk
Lee Hall
Purloined Platitudes and Bipartisan Bunk: An Adjunct’s View
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of Collective Punishment: Russia, Doping and WADA
Nozomi Hayase
Cryptography as Democratic Weapon Against Demagoguery
Cesar Chelala
The Real Donald Trump
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Propaganda Machinery and State Surveillance of Muslim Children
Denis Conroy
Australia: Election Time Blues for Clones
Marjorie Cohn
Killing With Robots Increases Militarization of Police
David Swanson
RNC War Party, DNC War Makers
Eugene Schulman
The US Role in the Israeli-Palestine Conflict
Nauman Sadiq
Imran Khan’s Faustian Bargain
Peter Breschard
Kaine the Weepy Executioner
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail