Workers need more power

Posted Feb. 14, 2015 @ 12:01 am

Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice who conducted the annual Houston Area Survey, was in demand as a public speaker. A point he often made was that well-paying unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing were being lost, so if Houston wanted a strong middle class, many more of its future workers would need a higher education.
I’m all for people attending college. Still, I had reservations about Steve’s argument, reservations I shared with him in the hope he would render it more complex and useful. I had no success with Steve. I hope to succeed with you.
My first point was that manufacturing jobs weren’t inherently high-paying. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, they paid subsistence wages, demanded long hours, offered no benefits and often were dangerous. Only labor union organizing combined with government intervention changed those conditions in the U.S. and Europe. They still prevail in much of the world.
My second point was that, in some cases, higher education didn’t guarantee good wages. Take teaching. The pay was low because it was one of the few professions open to women before Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbade gender bias in employment, and because teachers hadn’t organized themselves. Thanks to their unionizing and becoming a political force in most states, their wages improved dramatically.
My last point was that a large number of jobs will always be unskilled or semi-skilled, and they have to be filled. So if those jobs don’t pay a living wage, a significant percentage of the workforce and their families will always live in poverty.
The common ground of these points was that power in the workplace, either directly through unions or indirectly through government mandates such as minimum wage, the standard workweek, and paid overtime, determines employees’ well-being at least as much as their level of education.
It’s no coincidence that the years between 1947 and 1977, when income distribution in the U.S. was the most equal, were also the years when union membership was highest. In 1960, more than one-third of the U.S. workforce was in unions, almost all in the private sector. Today, fewer than 12 percent of the workforce is in unions, half of that in public employee unions. With loss of membership came loss of political power. Thus today, economic elites control both our workplaces and our legislatures.
In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that the five occupations that will add the most workers between then and 2022 are personal care aides, registered nurses, retail salespeople, home health aides and food service workers. Only the second category requires a higher education. The median wage of registered nurses is at least three times larger than that of the other four, so it behooves an individual to become a nurse rather than a home health aide. But from a public policy standpoint, we must ask whether it’s wise to condemn employees in the other and similar occupations to wages below the poverty line. If so, economic inequality will continue to grow, our middle class will continue to shrink and our social fabric will continue to unravel.
Peace House is part of a Campaign for Economic Justice focused on securing a living wage for all workers in the valley. We’re working for a significant increase in Oregon’s minimum wage, and prospects are good. Nothing, however, can replace unionization.
Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.

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