The Service Employees International Union and 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, have put together a grim portrait of what has happened to American families as poorly managed industries have tried to compete by cutting wages, benefits and work place standards instead of through technological advances and maximizing the value of the work force. If the Democrats are looking for an issue, this is it.
The bottom line -- or where the stock is trading -- is taking a terrible toll on the nation's workers and their families. People, it would seem, are no longer our most valuable resource. Profits are.
Some of the figures and economic conclusions that SEIU and 9to5 have pulled together have appeared before. Taken together, however, these figures tell an alarming story of the rapid economic erosion of the work force and the middle class. It is alarming not only for the future, but also for the present.
The union also has conducted a poll that shows overwhelming support among voters for parental leave legislation pending in Congress, as well as for raising the minimum wage and expanded employer health insurance. The poll shows that voters are hurting badly enough now to vote for candidates based on where they stand on these issues.
Three out of every four jobs are now in the service sector and these jobs pay less than manufacturing jobs did. The standard of living peaked in 1973 and has subsequently declined so that it is now 6 percent less, adjusted for inflation, despite the fact that many more families now have two earners. About 5.7 million people work at more than one job, a 24 percent increase since 1980. One of every four full-time American workers does not earn enough to keep his or her family out of poverty.
The study predicted that young men and women can expect to earn an average of 25 percent less during their lifetimes than the generation of workers that started out a mere 10 years earlier. Meanwhile, 37 million workers have no health insurance, double the figure only six years ago. More than 80 percent of those people were employed adults or their dependents.
More people are working on the margins of the work force in part-time, temporary or contract jobs, often with no benefits. The 2 million manufacturing jobs lost since 1979 paid an average of $20,846 a year. Nearly half of the full-time jobs created since then paid below the poverty level, which is $11,400 for a family of four. Ten percent of the work force is now under a two-tiered wage structure.
The service economy has produced industry giants that are often paying poverty-level wages that the taxpayers subsidize through public assistance programs, the SEIU report said. In economic performance, profits and wealth, Fortune's Service 500 now rival the Fortune Industrial 500. Beverly Enterprises, which runs nursing homes, has 116,000 employes, more than Chrysler's 115,074. McDonald's sales of $4.1 billion are almost as much as Bethlehem Steel's $4.3 billion.
The report documents the bleak erosion of family life as well as the ability of families to maintain a decent standard of living. "The U.S. economy depends on these same men and women to improve productivity, to learn new skills and to work harder to keep pace in a world economy. Yet U.S. institutions, unlike their counterparts worldwide, have not put in place even minimal family leave or child care supports for families.
"Thus, on top of declining incomes, benefits and job security, families face a work place with no provisions for raising children or caring for dependent adults.
"Fifty years ago and more, the widespread failure of corporate policies to put the economy to work for its people brought about a revolution in social and economic policies." These included the minimum wage, child labor laws, Social Security and the rights of workers to organize into unions. The SEIU report calls for changes now that would include wage and benefit policies that can support families, leave policies to balance work and family, education and training policies that conserve human capital rather than trash it, community- and work place-based child care, and guaranteed health care for all workers.
Perhaps the most important message in the SEIU and 9to5 report lies in its call for a "new set of standards to put corporate policy on the side of families and to reflect the needs of the new work force." It's a call to remember what's important and to back off from the paganistic worship of the bottom line that has blinded corporate managers. It's a message the Democrats ought to run with.