It’s Labor Day and while many of us are too busy bidding a last adieu to summer, maybe we should be thinking about the labor movement and American workers. The fight for better wages, equal pay, reasonable working hours, safer working conditions, an end to child labor, and benefits like health coverage, workers compensation and retirement pensions has had a long history. Labor unions definitely had some great success in their heyday, although membership in unions has, and continues to decline. While there are arguments for and against the continued relevance and effectiveness of unions, many of the same issues that brought about their rise have never gone away.
Take for example the issue of equal pay for equal work. In an article about the history of equal pay, Charlotte Alter quotes an 1869 letter to the editor of the New York Times which cited the fact that women in the U.S. Treasury department were paid half the pay of men for the same grade of work. And even though John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, more than four decades later the U.S. Department of Labor is using this campaign to highlight the fact that women still earn an average of 78 cents on the dollar in comparison to men.
The fight over the minimum wage continues to be fought state by state. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. For a full-time worker earning the minimum wage, that works out to just $15,080 a year, not much above the 2015 Poverty Guidelines. Even though the National Conference of State Legislatures lists 29 states and the District of Columbia with higher state minimum wages, none meet the standard of a “living wage,” and there are several states whose minimum wage is set below the current federal level, and five who have no state minimum wage: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. This means that some workers who are not covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act may legally be paid less than the federal minimum wage.
A non-profit think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, identified a need for higher wages. They reported in August that:
Regardless of where they lived, minimum wage workers were earning too little to make ends meet.
Fast-food workers began the push to raise their wages to $15 an hour last year. At least two Democrats seeking the 2016 presidential nomination have both endorsed a $15 minimum wage, with Senator Bernie Sanders introducing legislation for it in Congress. Currently few Republican presidential candidates support any increase in the minimum wage, and none at the level that Sanders and Martin O’Malley are advocating. In fact, some like Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio have spoken about eliminating the federal minimum wage completely.
That is only two labor issues that are still at the forefront. Others, like workers’ compensation are hot-button topics as well. So where does that leave our labor unions today? Struggling, but receiving some definite support from the current administration.
In speeches this Labor Day, Vice President Joe Biden told a Pittsburgh audience there was a simple correlation between strong unions and a strong middle class. In Boston, President Obama made his point by referring to the NFL Players Association’s successful fight to overturn Tom Brady’s suspension “You know if Brady needs a union,” Obama said, “we definitely need unions.”