Recently Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the 2001 groundbreaking work Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, passed away. The premise of Nickel and Dimed is simple: can low-wage workers survive on what they earn? Ehrenreich researched her topic by living as a minimum wage worker, in different industries, for weeks at a time. Her conclusion was the following:
The fight for worker protections predates the U.S. itself...
Workers began protesting unfair treatment early in U.S. history. Even before our independence from British rule, journeyman tailors in New York protested a reduction in their wages in 1768.i Labor unions grew from the atrocities committed against workers during the Industrial Revolution of the mid 1800s. Child labor, unsafe working conditions, and unfair labor practices created a drive for workers to band together and use collective bargaining to demand better treatment, pay, and benefits.
In the 1930s unions became federally recognized, and the National Labor Relations Board was established. Unions flourished in the U.S. through the 1960s, but struggled as factories were moved overseas and Republicans, like Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1981, championed "deregulation" and took decidedly anti-union stances. Union membership declined steadily as jobs in union-heavy sectors, like manufacturing, decreased. Conservative states passed "Right to Work" legislation, heavily favoring the rights of employers over employees and making union membership less powerful.ii
Low-wage workers need more than just a living wage...
With the federal minimum wage at $7.25/hour, unchanged since 2009, there is no U.S. state where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a 2-bedroom rental. Nationally, the wage needed to afford a modest 1-bedroom rental is $21.25/hour. Here in Maryland, although our minimum wage is higher at $12.50/hour, the minimum wage needed to afford a 2-bedroom rental is $28.93/hour.iii
Raising the minimum wage to a living wage is imperative, but only one piece of the puzzle. Benefits, like health insurance and paid leave, can affect the financial health of an individual or family as much as rate of pay. For example, union members make over 11% more than non-union members, but 96% of union members have health insurance as a result of their union and only 69% of non-union workers are insured.iv In our country, 41% of adults have health-care debt and low-income and uninsured people are most likely to owe this debt.v The absence of a comprehensive, nationwide system of paid leave means workers without adequate coverage lose wages and/or benefits when taking time for themselves or their family. A recent report estimates U.S. workers collectively lost over $28 billion in wages during the first two years of the pandemic.vi
A new generations is fighting for worker protections...
Starting with the unionization of a Starbucks store in Buffalo, NY in 2021, unions have experienced a measurable resurgence. Most notably, this spring Amazon workers at a warehouse on Staten Island voted in favor of a union, despite the company spending over $4.3 million on anti-union consultants.vii Over 100 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since, and employees at a Trader Joe's in Massachusetts and a Chipotle in Michigan have become the first to unionize at those companies.viii Here in Maryland, two union firsts occurred this summer when employees at The Apple Store in Towson Town Centerix and MOM's Organic Market in Hampdenx (both in Baltimore County) voted to unionize. And while only 1 in 6 Americans live in a household with a union member, the approval rating of unions is at its highest point since 1965, with 71% of Americans having a favorable opinion of labor unions.xi
The future of labor organizing is here...
When we speak of community or political organizing, we often refer to the phrase coined by the National Union of the Homeless, "You only get what you are organized to take." The 40 hour work week, the weekend, minimum age requirements for employment, worker's compensation, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and all other worker protections were fought for and won by those who suffered in the workplace then demanded change.
As Utah Phillips, labor organizer, folk singer, storyteller and poet, said,
"These kids don't have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don't have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that."xii
When people vote this November, many will have wages, worker's rights, worker benefits, and working conditions on their minds. Let's keep in mind that we will only get what we are organized to take, and all employee protections, like those offered by unions, can only be had through a ballot box.
iWikipedia contributors. (2022a, June 11). Labor rights. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
iiWikipedia contributors. (2022e, September 10). Labor unions in the United States. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
iii Out of Reach. (n.d.). National Low Income Housing Coalition. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
iv National Compensation Survey (NCS) Home Page. (2008, July 19). Retrieved September 15, 2022.
vHealth Care Debt In The U.S.: The Broad Consequences Of Medical And Dental Bills - Main Findings. (2022, July 29). KFF. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
viKonish, L. (2022, August 12). U.S. workers lost about $28 billion in wages during Covid-19 due to lack of access to paid leave, report finds. CNBC. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
viiJamieson, D. (2022, April 1). Amazon Spent $4.3 Million On Anti-Union Consultants Last Year. HuffPost. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
viiiGurley, L. K. (2022, August 30). The labor market is still red-hot — and it’s helping union organizers. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
ixLerman, R., Gregg, A., & Somasundaram, P. (2022, June 18). Apple Store workers approve union, the first in the U.S.The Washington Post. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
xBologna, G. (2022, August 30). Workers at MOM’s Organic Market in Hampden vote to unionize. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
xi McCarthy, B. J. (2022, September 13). U.S. Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point Since 1965. Gallup.com. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
xii Kupfer, D. (2018, June 4). An Interview with Utah Phillips. Progressive.org. Retrieved September 15, 2022.