FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Collective Bargaining and the Minimum Wage

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.

More articles by:

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).

December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail