“Raising wages is the single standard by which leadership will be judged,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced Wednesday at the federation’s conference unveiling labor’s political agenda. To that end, he said, the AFL-CIO would launch projects this year in the four states that hold the first four presidential primaries and caucuses of 2016 — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — as a way to make presidential candidates spell out exactly what they would do to boost Americans’ increasingly anemic wages.
The focus on wages is hardly new to U.S. labor, of course. In 1996, Trumka’s predecessor as federation president, John Sweeney, co-authored a book with David Kusnet titled “America Needs a Raise.” Since Sweeney’s book appeared, however, the raise has all but disappeared from the lives of U.S. workers. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted in addressing the conference, the bottom 90 percent of Americans, who received 70 percent of the income growth between 1935 and 1980, have gotten precisely zero percent of the income growth since 1997.
The AFL-CIO is on sound ground politically, no less than economically, in making candidates’ positions on increasing wages the key to labor’s support. In November’s midterm elections, after all, voters in four solidly conservative states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — overwhelmingly approved ballot measures increasing their respective state’s minimum wage.
Trumka also announced that the federation would initiate projects in seven cities that would organize workers — whether union members or not — in campaigns to boost wages and enact such pro-employee ordinances as mandating paid sick days or requiring retailers to give their workers sufficient advance notice of their hours. The cities range from such liberal bastions as Minneapolis and Washington, where legislation that pushes the envelope of workers’ rights can be enacted, to cities such as San Diego and Atlanta, where demographic change is creating the possibility of more progressive government, to Columbus, where creating an organization of low-wage workers could help keep Ohio in the Democratic column in the 2016 presidential election.
Trumka’s emphasis on cities, not states, acknowledges one of the fundamental realities of political power in the United States right now: While Democrats control both the legislature and governor’s office in just seven states, Republicans control them in 24. At the same time, 25 of the 30 largest U.S. cities have Democratic mayors. It’s cities, not states, that have set the highest minimum-wage standards, adopted the most immigrant-friendly policies and passed the most far-reaching environmental protections. The nation’s laboratories of progressive democracy, the AFL-CIO clearly understands, are its city halls.
The federation’s seven-cities project has the potential to do more than create more pro-worker ordinances. With most private-sector union organizing blocked by employer opposition and weak protections for workers who seek to form unions, the project could also generate organizations of low-wage workers, whether union or not, that might become a force in their cities and states. Alongside the nation’s existing unions, other organizations — somewhat like the 19th century’s Knights of Labor — could arise with the capacity to advance workers’ causes politically. Lacking the capacity to bargain collectively with their employers, such groups would be halfway houses for workers’ interests, but until labor law and corporate practices are altered to allow for union organizing again, a halfway house is better than nothing.
The missing link in labor’s raise-the-wage agenda is what to do about the majority of workers who make too much to be affected by minimum wage increases, or who already have paid sick days, but whose incomes have nonetheless stagnated or declined while the cost of college and medical care has continued to rise. Some points on labor’s to-do list — embracing a trade policy that doesn’t put American workers in competition with workers in the developing world, investing more in roads, rails and bridges — address those concerns somewhat, but workers also need policies that address the wage gap more directly.
One such policy informs a bill that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, introduced this week. The bill would prohibit publicly traded corporations from taking tax deductions for their chief executives’ “performance pay” in excess of $1 million unless they give their employees’ raises in line with the nation’s productivity increases. If the company’s performance is so terrific that the CEO deserves a huge bonus, its employees likely had something to do with it, too, and should also reap a (considerably more modest) reward. That’s the spirit that informs the AFL-CIO’s new project and that labor wants to see in the candidates who seek its support.
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