by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Nate Carlile, and Zaid Jilani
What Workers Face This Labor Day
On Monday, President Obama will celebrate America's 127th Labor Day by giving a speech on "jobs, the economy and maybe a little health care" at the annual AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnati, OH. Despite positive indications that the U.S. economy is beginning to "climb out of the worst recession in decades," Obama's speech will come at a difficult time for America's workers as job losses continue. In the current recession, 6.7 million jobs have been lost through July, with another 216,000 jobs lost in August. Even those who are still working are facing significant challenges. Earlier this week, a new report financed by the Ford, Joyce, Haynes, and Russell Sage Foundations found that labor protections in America "are failing significant numbers of workers." According to the survey, which was "the most comprehensive examination of wage-law violations in a decade," 68 percent of the low wage workers who were interviewed said they were subjected to pay violations in their previous work week alone. This included 26 percent who were paid less than the minimum wage and 76 percent who didn't receive legally required overtime pay. In all, the researchers discovered that "the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339," adding up to a 15 percent loss in pay. The report "clearly shows we still have a major task before us," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in a statement, promising that the Department of Labor in the Obama administration "will be marked by an emphasis on the protection" of the rights of America's workers.
NEED FOR MORE LABOR PROTECTIONS: In December 2008, the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress released a report noting that "one of the hallmarks of President George W. Bush's administration has been its failure to enforce laws designed to protect ordinary Americans," particularly the Labor Department's "inadequate enforcement of important workplace protections." The Obama administration has pushed to clean up the mess, requesting a 10 percent budget increase for worker protection programs. Solis told the New York Times this week that she is currently in the process of hiring 250 more wage-and-hour investigators. But as the Wonk Room's Pat Garofalo points out, this effort "should be complemented by the Senate confirming the Labor Department nominees who are still stuck in no-man's land. This will help put in place people willing to enforce the wage laws that are on the books, but were neglected under former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao." In particular, the administration's nominee to run the Wage and Hour Division, Lorelei Boylan, is still stuck in the Senate. Additionally, last week, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), ranking Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, asked President Obama to withdraw his nomination for Patricia Smith to be Department of Labor Solicitor, citing "inconsistent testimony" regarding a program that she launched in New York to monitor wage theft. According to the New York Times, there are currently five Labor Deptartment nominees awaiting Senate confirmation. AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka -- who is running unopposed for the AFL-CIO presidency -- told the Wonk Room that those in Congress who are holding up the nominees are doing so "because they don't want those positions filled."
THE STATE OF UNION MEMBERSHIP: As Center for American Progress Action Fund analysts David Madland and Karla Walter have written, more workers with union jobs are good for the economy. In 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "union members accounted for 12.4 percent of employed wage and salary workers, up from 12.1 percent a year earlier." Though union membership rose from 2006 to 2008, the percentage of American workers who belong to a union is still significantly lower than it was in 1983, the first year for which comparable union date are available. In speech this week explaining why no Republicans will vote for the Employee Free Choice Act -- which would make it easier for workers to join a union -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) claimed that workers don't actually want to join unions due to the "very enlightened management in this country now." But this isn't true. According to an AFL-CIO survey found, there are 60 million American workers who say that they would join a union if they could. The reason they haven't isn't because of a lack of desire. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that employers fought back against unionization efforts by threatening "to close plants in 57 percent of the campaigns and...cut wages and benefits in 47 percent," while firing pro-union workers 34 percent of the time. Employers use tactics such as forced one-on-one meetings with supervisors to "to intimidate workers and determine their support for unionization."
THE CHALLENGES FOR YOUNG WORKERS: Earlier this week, the AFL-CIO released a new report, "Young Workers, A Lost Decade," which found that workers younger than 35 have "not only have young workers lost financial ground over the past 10 years -- they have also lost some of their optimism." Alarmingly, the nationwide survey found that "31 percent of young workers reports being uninsured, up from 24 percent without health insurance coverage 10 years ago" and "one-third of young workers cannot pay the bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses." When the AFL-CIO conducted a similar survey in 1999, it found that more than 75 percent of young workers were more hopeful than worried about their economic future. In 2009, just over half feel that way, a 22 percent drop. Perhaps the most illustrative data point from the survey for the plight that young workers face is that nearly one in three of them "will be laboring on Labor Day; they are significantly more likely to be at work on this holiday than workers older than 35. Even fewer low-income young workers have the day off." Young workers are much more likely than older workers to believe that "labor unions are necessary to protect the working person."