March, 2013

Retail Justice Alliance and Other Stakeholders Address Economic Struggles of Part-Time Workers in Hearing with Rep. Jan Schakowsky

Bill Fletcher, chair of the Retail Justice Alliance, spoke about the economic plight of part-time retail workers. Rep. Jan Schakowsky is seated at his left.

On March 26, the National Retail Justice Alliance, in partnership with the UFCW, Citizen Action/Illinois, Women Employed and Jobs With Justice, hosted a hearing at the Spertus Institute in Chicago with Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to highlight the economic plight of part-time workers in retail and other service industries. The hearing also underscored the need for Rep. Schakowsky’s legislation—the Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act of 2013 (H.R. 675)—which would extend protections to part-time workers in the areas of employer-provided health insurance, family and medical leave, and pension plans. Sponsored by Schakowsky and Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), the Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights builds upon the progress of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and ensures that part-time workers (defined as working less than 30 hours a week) and their families have access to critical workplace benefits. The ACA penalizes employers who fail to provide health insurance to full-time workers, but includes no such penalties for employers who deny health coverage to part-time workers.

Jim Hutton (left), a Macy’s worker, and Tyrone Robinson (right), a Walmart worker, spoke about their struggle to survive as part-time workers in the Chicago area.

“As our nation’s economy relies more and more on part-time, low-wage work, policies are needed to address the widening gap of those working without a safety net for retirement, healthcare, and family leave,” said Bill Fletcher, chair of the National Retail Justice Alliance and director of field service and education at the American Federation of Government Employees. “The Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights would ensure that employers provide for critical benefits for part-timers and protect the health and well-being of millions of part-time workers in retail and other service industries.” In addition to Schakowsky and Fletcher, Tyrone Robinson, a Walmart worker and Jim Hutton, a Macy’s worker, spoke about their struggle to survive as part-time workers in the Chicago area. Approximately 881 workers were also involved in the production of the hearing.

UFCW members and other stakeholders attended the hearing.

“Today, I decided to speak out because there are millions of part-time workers in my position, many of which are in a worse off because they earn less and can’t afford health insurance,” said Robinson. “Today, I am speaking out not just for myself but for them and millions of other workers who are too afraid to speak up.”

The Non Zero-Sum Society

Issue Brief #347 from the Economic Policy Institute

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By Robert Reich

As President Obama said in his inaugural address last week, America “cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”

Yet that continues to be the direction we’re heading in.

A newly-released analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that the super-rich have done well in the economic recovery while almost everyone else has done badly. The top 1 percent of earners’ real wages grew 8.2 percent from 2009 to 2011, yet the real annual wages of Americans in the bottom 90 percent have continued to decline in the recovery, eroding by 1.2 percent between 2009 and 2011.

In other words, we’re back to the widening inequality we had before the debt bubble burst in 2008 and the economy crashed.

But the President is exactly right. Not even the very wealthy can continue to succeed without a broader-based prosperity. That’s because 70 percent of economic activity in America is consumer spending. If the bottom 90 percent of Americans are becoming poorer, they’re less able to spend. Without their spending, the economy can’t get out of first gear.

That’s a big reason why the recovery continues to be anemic, and why the International Monetary Fund just lowered its estimate for U.S. growth in 2013 to just 2 percent.

Almost a quarter of all jobs in America now pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 7 out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage — like serving customers at big-box retailers and fast-food chains.

At this rate, who’s going to buy all the goods and services America is capable of producing? We can’t return to the kind of debt-financed consumption that caused the bubble in the first place.

Get it? It’s not a zero-sum game. Wealthy Americans would do better with smaller shares of a rapidly-growing economy than with the large shares they now possess of an economy that’s barely moving.

If they were rational, the wealthy would support public investments in education and job-training, a world-class infrastructure (transportation, water and sewage, energy, internet), and basic research — all of which would make the American workforce more productive.

If they were rational they’d even support labor unions — which have proven the best means of giving working people a fair share in the nation’s prosperity.

But labor unions are almost extinct.

The decline of labor unions in America tracks exactly the decline in the bottom 90 percent’s share of total earnings, and shrinkage of the middle class.

In the 1950s, when the U.S. economy was growing faster than 3 percent a year, more than a third of all working people belonged to a union. That gave them enough bargaining clout to get wages that allowed them to buy what the economy was capable of producing.

Since the late 1970s, unions have eroded — as has the purchasing power of most Americans, and not coincidentally, the average annual growth of the economy.

Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of 2012 only 6.6 percent of workers in the private sector were unionized. (That’s down from 6.9 percent in 2011.) That’s the lowest rate of unionization in almost a century.

What’s to blame? Partly globalization and technological change. Globalization sent many unionized manufacturing plants abroad.

Manufacturing is starting to return to America but it’s returning without many jobs. The old assembly line has been replaced by robotics and numerically-controlled machine tools.

Technologies have also replaced many formerly unionized workers in telecommunications (remember telephone operators?) and clerical jobs.

But wait. Other nations subject to the same forces have far higher levels of unionization than America. 28 percent ofCanada’s workforce is unionized, as is more than 25 percent of Britain’s, and almost 20 percent of Germany’s.

Unions are almost extinct in America because we’ve chosen to make them extinct.

Unlike other rich nations, our labor laws allow employers to replace striking workers. We’ve also made it exceedingly difficult for workers to organize, and we barely penalized companies that violate labor laws. (A worker who’s illegally fired for trying to organize a union may, if lucky, get the job back along with back pay — after years of legal haggling.)

Republicans, in particular, have set out to kill off unions. Union membership dropped 13 percent last year in Wisconsin, which in 2011 curbed the collective bargaining rights of many public employees. And it fell 18 percent last year in Indiana, which last February enacted a right-to-work law (allowing employees at unionized workplaces to get all the benefits of unionization without paying for them). Last month Michigan enacted a similar law.

Don’t blame globalization and technological change for why employees at Walmart , America’s largest employer, still don’t have a union. They’re not in global competition and their jobs aren’t directly threatened by technology.

The average pay of a Walmart worker is $8.81 an hour. A third of Walmart’s employees work less than 28 hours per week and don’t qualify for benefits.

Walmart is a microcosm of the American economy. It has brazenly fought off unions. But it could easily afford to pay its workers more. It earned $16 billion last year. Much of that sum went to Walmart’s shareholders, including the family of its founder, Sam Walton.

The wealth of the Walton family now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of American families combined, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

But how can Walmart expect to continue to show fat profits when most of its customers are on a downward economic escalator?

Walmart should be unionized. So should McDonalds. So should every major big-box retailer and fast-food outlet in the nation. So should every hospital in America.

That way, more Americans would have enough money in their pockets to get the economy moving. And everyone — even the very rich — would benefit.

As Obama said, America cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.

ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest is an e-book, “Beyond Outrage,” now available in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

What’s Wrong with Increasing the Minimum Wage?

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Each time any mention is made of raising the minimum wage, politicians and pundits on the political Right—servants of corporate America—warn of the alleged danger that this presents to the economy.

Economists do not agree, which is one of the reasons that the minimum wage was introduced during the Great Depression.  If people do not have the funds to buy anything, then the economy grinds to a halt.  It is actually that simple.

The minimum wage, more than anything else, serves as a base-line to prevent employers from forcing workers to compete for their jobs by continuously lowering their living standards.  In fact, in the absence of a minimum wage, workers could find themselves selling themselves into indentured servitude.

The minimum wage says that there is a certain point that society will not accept dropping beneath.  In reality, the minimum wage is much below what it should be for an individual, not to mention a family.  It is for this reason that many unions and their community-based allies have pushed for “living wage ordinances” around the country as a way of raising the base pay of workers.

Unions support the increase in the minimum wage not because it leads to any automatic increase in the wages of their own members, but so that workers are not looking over their shoulders at every moment fearing that workers, more desperate than themselves, will be prepared to step in for a fraction of the salary/wages that they are receiving.

A society without a minimum wage is, as a result, not a society; or at least it is not a civilized society.  But when you consider the economic proposals of much of the Republican Party and their allies in other parts of corporate America, “civilized” would not come anywhere near describing the future that they have in store for workers in the USA.