LABOR DAY AND THE MIDDLE CLASS

ABSTRACT: Labor Day is a time to celebrate the contributions working people make to our country. But with unemployment still high, inequality on the uptick, and the middle class shrinking and under serious financial strain, many working families just don’t have much to celebrate. For 30 years, wages for the middle and lower income workers have barely kept up with inflation and have not kept up with their significant productivity increases. This means that they aren’t being paid fairly for what they produce. From 1979 to 2012, a typical worker’s wages grew only 5.0% despite a 74.5% increase in productivity.

Efforts are building at the federal level and in a number of states to raise the minimum wage, which has not kept pace with inflation or productivity growth. Low wage workers at fast food chains, big box retailers, and elsewhere have been organizing rallies and strikes to protest low wages and poor working conditions.

President Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, has put together a short video (under 3 minutes) that explains how we can turn things around. (http://front.moveon.org/how-workers-can-get-a-fair-shake-a-labor-day-message-from-robert-reich/#.UiSXAknD_IU)

Jobs with wages that support a middle class life are essential to the well-being of individuals, families, our economy, and our country. Such jobs have been disappearing for 30 years. We need to reverse this trend. And we can, through our actions as citizens and through the policies of our government.

FULL POST: Labor Day is a time to celebrate the contributions working people make to our country. They power our economy both through what they produce and what they consume. (Consumer spending is about two-thirds of economic activity.)

But with unemployment still high, inequality on the uptick, and the middle class shrinking and under serious financial strain, many working families just don’t have much to celebrate. The recovery is weak and the jobs that are being created are largely low wage jobs. So far in 2013, 61% of new jobs have been in low-wage industries and 77% have been part-time. [1] Many of the laid off workers who are getting jobs are earning much less than they used to and many are only working part-time; many of them, especially older workers, are experiencing long-term unemployment with unemployment benefits running out and the loss of health insurance. [2]

For 30 years, wages for the middle and lower income workers have barely kept up with inflation and have not kept up with their significant productivity increases. This means that they aren’t being paid fairly for what they produce. Their increases in productivity are not rewarding them, but instead are going to corporate profits, executive pay, and shareholders. Between 2007 and 2012, wages fell for the 70% of workers at the bottom of the income distribution, despite productivity growth of 7.7%. From 1979 to 2012, a typical worker’s wages grew only 5.0% despite a 74.5% increase in productivity. [3] If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth since the 1960s, it would be $16.54 instead of $7.25. [4]

Since 2008, corporate profits are up 25% – 30% while wages have fallen to their lowest portion of corporate revenue since the 1940s. Part of this is due to the continuing trend of employers changing full-time jobs with benefits into part-time or contracted jobs, typically without benefits. [5]

Efforts are building at the federal level and in a number of states to raise the minimum wage, which has not kept pace with inflation or productivity growth. More than 7 million children live in homes whose income would increase if we raised the minimum wage and more than 10 million Americans, including 4% of full-time workers, qualify as the “working poor.” That means they spent at least half the year working yet still live below the poverty line ($19,530 for a family of three, which might be a single parent and two children). [6]

Low wage workers at fast food chains, big box retailers, and elsewhere have been organizing rallies and strikes to protest low wages and poor working conditions.[7] If you didn’t see The Daily Show’s piece on fast food workers and the minimum wage (with John Oliver subbing for Jon Stewart) it’s, as usual, both informative and entertaining. It’s at: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-august-1-2013/can-t-you-at-least-wait-until-jon-stewart-gets-back. (It’s 10 minutes long with short ads at the beginning and in two breaks.)

President Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, has put together a short video (under 3 minutes) that explains how we can turn things around. It lists 6 policies that are needed to make sure workers’ get a fair return for their labor and that would support the middle class. It’s at: http://front.moveon.org/how-workers-can-get-a-fair-shake-a-labor-day-message-from-robert-reich/#.UiSXAknD_IU.

As an initial step, the site includes a petition you can sign that calls on two very profitable companies – McDonald’s and Walmart – to pay their workers fair wages. Walmart, for example, pays its typical employee less than $9 an hour and many of its jobs are part-time, while its profits in 2013 were $28 billion. Most people who work for big-box retailers like Walmart, as well as those who work in the fast-food industry, are adults, not teenagers. They are responsible for bringing home a significant share of their family’s income and they should be paid enough to lift them and their families out of poverty.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., led the March to Washington for Jobs and Justice fifty years ago, one of the objectives was to raise the minimum wage to $2 an hour. $2 an hour in 1963, adjusted for inflation, comes to over $15 an hour today. (You can read more on this and many other topics at Bob Reich’s excellent blog at: http://robertreich.org.)

Jobs with wages that support a middle class life are essential to the well-being of individuals, families, our economy, and our country. Such jobs have been disappearing for 30 years. We need to reverse this trend. Increasing the minimum wage is one step. Increasing investments in human capital are another, including high quality, affordable early care and education, good schools, and affordable, quality post-secondary education. Universal access to good health care and steps to increase compensation and conditions for workers here in the U.S., as well as around the globalized world (for example, through trade treaties), are essential. We can affect these matters through our actions as citizens and through the policies of our government.


[1]       Wiseman, P., 8/5/13, “Most new jobs in July were low paying, part time,” The Boston Globe (from the Associated Press)

[2]       Winerip, M., 8/26/13, “Set back by recession, shut out of rebound,” The New York Times

[3]       Mishel, L., & Shierholz, H., 8/21/13, “A decade of flat wages: The key barrier to shared prosperity and a rising middle class,” Economic Policy Institute

[5]       Garson, B., 8/20/13, “How corporate America used the Great Recession to turn good jobs into bad ones,” TomDispatch

[6]       Eskow, R.J., 8/26/13, see above

[7]       Johnston, K., 8/27/13, “Local rally part of nationwide call,” The Boston Globe

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2 comments

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