How America Undervalues Working People, and How Workers are Fighting Back

Image of workers on lunch break.

Image by Documerica.

America is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Yet when compared to other advanced industrialized countries, it fares dismally in national laws and policies affecting workers. This is a major claim of a recent cross-national study sponsored by the humanitarian organization Oxfam America, a report that offers a powerful lens for understanding the major strike activity now underway in the U.S. The study notes how political choices create environments that favor or undermine working people – choices that in the U.S. have largely been to the detriment of workers.

In light of the current strikes (e.g., writers, actors, hotel workers, Amazon delivery drivers), the study reminds one that, whatever the political environment may be, it’s the workers themselves – and the unions that represent them – that must continue to assert the leadership needed to bring about a more just and equitable society.

Perhaps the disadvantaging of U.S. workers is no more readily apparent than in policies setting the minimum wage. Unlike 80 other countries that mandate an annual review of a national minimum wage, the U.S. requires no such review, and Congress has failed to raise the hourly wage from $7.25 since 2014, and failed as well to raise the tipped minimum wage (from $2.13) since 1991. Many states and localities have set their minimum wage above the national standard, from $8.75 per hour in West Virginia to $16.50 in the District of Columbia.

But these numbers only begin to become meaningful when you factor in the cost of housing. According to latest figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, workers in this country must earn on average $28.58 an hour for a “modest two-bedroom rental home” and $23.67 for a “modest one-bedroom rental home.” In California, where housing costs are the highest in the nation, a working person must earn $42.25 an hour for a two-bedroom rental.

For hotel housekeepers in Los Angeles, who currently make on average only $20-25 an hour, the only way to survive financially is to take on two or three jobs – or to commute two or three hours a day from distant, less expensive locations. So these workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 11, opted to take collective action. Once contracts with 61 Southern California hotels expired on June 30, they began a series of rolling strikes, walking off the job at selected groups of hotels to make clear to employers their critical role to the industry. The strikes continue to this day.

As hurtful as the rent/wage disparity is, it’s still part of a much bigger picture of policy failures. The U.S. is almost alone among advanced industrialized nations in tying health insurance to employment. Without universal, tax-based health insurance, many workers risk losing their insurance as a result of work-related issues and changes.

As the current SAG-AFTRA strike has made clear, many actors are at risk of losing their insurance if they’re not able to work a minimum number of days per year or reach a minimum earnings threshold. Some 86 percent of the union’s 160,000 members do not earn enough to qualify for health insurance.

And health care is only one of the comparative indices with which to measure a nation’s commitment to the well-being of its workers and their families. The U.S. stands alone among advanced nations in lacking a federal mandate to provide paid leave. By way of contrast, consider Spain’s mandate of 16 weeks of paid maternity leave and 16 weeks of paid paternity leave for new parents.

As challenging as the current strikes are for workers in a wide range of sectors, it’s even more challenging for workers to begin organizing unions and securing fair contracts. In a nation where union busting is a major industry, and where penalties against companies for labor violations are relatively minor, it’s not difficult for large corporations like Amazon or Starbucks to stonewall efforts at collective bargaining.

Though Starbucks workers have voted to unionize at more than 340 stores since the first successful vote in 2021, the company has failed to negotiate a single contract with workers at any of the stores.

Once again, a contrast with other nations is instructive, particularly in countries like Austria, where sectoral bargaining allows panels of workers to bargain with employers across an entire industry, rather than company by company.

Workers and unions do need allies in government and in the community. They can’t change laws and policy without strong support.

And current strikes demonstrate how such support can be manifested in many ways – from open letters to employers, to legislative initiatives, to direct participation in worker-led actions, including civil disobedience.

But ultimately the initiative, the perseverance, and the courage lie with the workers themselves – seeking dignity and a better life for themselves and their families. It is out of this leadership that a more equitable society must, in the final analysis, emerge for us all.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.