Good pay for hard work: We must recognize that workers are the nation's backbone
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Labor Day is the one holiday on the calendar devoted to honoring and recognizing America's workers and their families and the value we bring to the prosperity and strength of our nation. That's pretty much all of us, whether we're employed or looking for work.
And no matter what we do, our work makes the work of others possible. Teachers depend on electricians, who count on steel workers, who need nurses and engineers, who rely on researchers and bus drivers and flight attendants, who depend upon taxi drivers and child care workers, who need auto workers and traffic cops and firefighters, and so on it goes.
Work connects us all. And together, we help each other prosper.
Here's what else connects us: our vision of an America that values and respects work and the people who do it. Not some of us, all of us. Today, we are further from this vision than we have been in many generations.
This is due in large part to the fact that our policymakers are allowing corporations and the wealthiest individuals of our nation to capture most of the wealth that our economy has generated over the past 30 years -- at the expense of the middle class. The premise is that if you give more power and wealth to corporations and the wealthiest individuals, they will create good jobs and prosperity for all. It hasn't worked. All we have received in return for these policies is low-wage, no-benefit jobs; greater income inequality between the wealthiest individuals and the rest of us; and a shrinking middle class.
Our nation's history shows that the road to economic prosperity and strength is through the streets and towns of Main Street communities across America. Generations ago we decided as a nation that we would build a middle-class economy that promotes prosperity for all, not just a few. Working men and women who lived through the Great Depression and World War II decided that it was better to band together and organize than to trust the bosses to pay them fairly.
Capitalism generally seeks the lowest wage so that it can generate more wealth for the owner and the shareholders. As a result, workers organized in unprecedented numbers. At one point one out of every three workers was in a union.
Those workers, through their unions, fought for and got a bigger piece of the economic pie. Shareholders also benefited by getting increased productivity from their employees and, as more workers joined the middle class, increased consumer demand for their products.
While union density never reached above 37 percent of the work force, the presence of these unions was alone enough to lift the wages and living standards for all workers.
Our economy is based upon consumer demand: the ability of working families to be able to afford to buy the products and services in the marketplace. Working family incomes have been flat for more than a decade. This is the primary reason that it is taking longer for us to recover from our current recession than from the previous recession.
Even Henry Ford, who by no means was a big fan of labor unions, understood that if he didn't pay his workers a decent wage they would not be able to buy his automobiles. He raised the wages of workers so they could afford to buy the trucks and cars they produced, otherwise there wouldn't have been a Ford Motor Co. Many of our CEOs and their political allies today could learn this important lesson in kitchen-table economics.
The solution to our economic woes and shrinking middle class is not more tax breaks and more wealth for the corporations and the wealthy individuals of this nation. We've traveled down that road for the past 30 years and all that we have received is lower wages, greater income inequality and a shrinking middle class.
What's needed are real job-creation policies that rebuild our aging infrastructure, investments in public education that give every child the opportunity to succeed and health security and retirement security for all Americans.
Just as important is giving back to workers what they need the most to improve their own wages, benefits and standards of living -- the freedom to organize unions without being harassed or fired by their employers.
This is the path to economic prosperity for all and to rebuilding the strength of our nation. We must again recognize the value of work and of the American worker as the backbone of our nation.
First Published September 3, 2012 12:00 am