Labor Day, 2014, comes at a time when Americans have concluded—correctly—that their country is downwardly mobile. In a Rutgers University poll released last week, 71 percent of Americans said they believed the changes to the economy caused by the Great Recession are permanent. (Asked the same question in November 2009, just 49 percent chose the “permanent” option.) Only 14 percent agreed with the description of American workers as “happy at work,” while 68 percent said American workers were “highly stressed” and 70 percent agreed they were “not secure in their jobs.”
The economic data released last week confirm Americans’ pessimism. In a study for the Economic Policy Institute, economist Elise Gould reported that median hourly wages have declined by 2.7 percent since 2007, and that wages have declined for every decile over the past year except the lowest one, where minimum wage increases in several states and cities boosted the median wage by a resplendent two cents. Americans are entitled to their gloom and apprehension.
And yet, where liberals govern, or where voters can have a say in such matters, efforts are underway to boost at least the lowest of incomes. At the federal level, the bill by U.S. Representative George Miller of California and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, backed by President Barack Obama, to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from its current $7.25 has failed to surmount a wall of Republican opposition. Attempts to pass the bill in the Senate have come up short of the 60-vote cloture threshold needed to bring a vote to the floor, while a discharge petition signed by 195 of the 198 Democratic members of Congress remains twenty-three signatures shy of forcing a vote on the House floor.
In blue states and cities—and even in some red states and cities—the story is different. Over the past two years, a number of states have enacted wage increases, with California going to $10 by the end of next year. Cities in states that permit municipalities to set higher minimums are taking the standard well above $10. With the backing of much of the city’s business community, the Seattle City Council enacted an ordinance this spring raising that city’s minimum wage in graduated steps to $15. Voters in San Francisco and Oakland will be asked in the November election to approve raises in their cities to $15 and $13.19, respectively, by 2018, with automatic cost-of-living increases thereafter. The city council in San Diego—not too long ago, a solidly Republican city, but transformed, like most of California, by immigration—has set a municipal minimum of $11.50 by 2018. And today, Labor Day, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will unveil a proposal to raise L.A.’s minimum to $13.25 by 2018, as well.
In New York, as a condition of receiving the (tepid) endorsement of the labor-focused Working Families Party, Governor Andrew Cuomo has agreed to allow New York City to set its own hourly minimum at 30 percent higher than the state’s, which would come to a little over $13. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has suggested that the standard in his city should go to $13 as well, but has yet to suggest a process by which that might happen, while a proposal to raise the state’s minimum to $10 is on the November ballot in Illinois.
The campaigns for minimum-wage raises aren’t confined to Democratic strongholds, however. Initiatives that would raise the state minimum wage are on November’s ballots in Arkansas and Alaska, where they may produce the kind of working-class turnout that would help the re-election bids of Democratic Senators Mark Pryor and Mark Begich, respectively. That’s largely why Democrats gathered signatures to put the measures on the ballot. But no such Democratic strategy is responsible for the presence of such an initiative on Nebraska’s ballot this November. Quite apart from political calculation, it seems a fair number of Nebraskans just believe it’s time for a raise. Similarly, in Kentucky, a measure to enact a minimum wage ordinance is before the Louisville City Council, where it’s favored to pass.
Nor are states and cities confining themselves to raising wages. Connecticut has already enacted a law giving workers the right to paid sick days. A similar bill passed the California legislature late Friday night, with the backing of Gov. Jerry Brown. San Francisco enacted a more sweeping paid sick day law a few years back, and Oakland voters will be asked to approve one when they vote this fall.
While the push for higher wages is an overdue response to the wage stagnation of the past forty years, and the wage decline of the past half-decade, it took more than that to trigger the current wave of legislation. The Occupy movement, for all its strategic shortcomings, made the issue of economic inequality resonant for millions for Americans. The more immediate trigger, though, was the “Fight for 15” campaign of the Service Employees International Union, which began, more than two years ago, as a drive not just to highlight the issue of low-wage work, but a campaign to organize fast-food workers in New York, retail workers on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and baristas in Seattle.
For a range of reasons, only the fast-food campaign took off, though its signal success hasn’t been winning, or even coming close to winning, a contract with McDonald’s or any other fast-food company. Rather, that success came in Seattle, where local SEIU leadership coordinated all the fast-food demonstrations to impact last year’s city elections. The union’s campaign even managed to get eight of the nine mayoral candidates to participate in a televised debate in which all the questioners were low-paid workers who asked them to raise the minimum wage. Thereafter, the issue of the city adopting a $15 wage standard came up at virtually every mayoral forum that followed.
The winning candidate, Ed Murray, was the one who first, and most emphatically, articulated his support for the $15 wage. His election, which coincided with the voters’ adoption of a $15 standard (with no phase-in period), in the Seattle-airport-adjacent town of Sea-Tac, and the unseating of a Seattle city council member by a Trotskyist supporter of the $15 wage, ensured that such an ordinance would be enacted by the Seattle Council this year. Murray’s experience and skills at building consensus (as a veteran state legislator, he had steered tax and same-sex marriage bills to enactment with bipartisan support) succeeded in winning business support for the raise, convincing opponents not to seek to overturn the ordinance through a ballot measure.
At a time when collective bargaining in the private-sector economy has all but vanished—just 6.7 percent of private-sector workers are union members—and collective bargaining in the public sector is under relentless red-state attack, unions and workers’ movements have turned to the state and local legislative processes to advance workers’ causes. For the time being, that’s clearly the best they can do: The campaigns to unionize the work force at Wal-Mart, say, or McDonald's, even by the most optimistic of analyses, are years from realization, if indeed they can be realized at all.
Public-sector unions still can win victories on union-friendly terrain—the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers has picked up new members this year, while SEIU won an election to represent Minnesota home-care workers last week—but the amount of union-friendly terrain has been shrinking, as the enactment of right-to-work laws in Michigan and Indiana over the past couple years attests. One union that continues to grow is UNITE HERE, which combines extensive worker cultivation with an ability to leverage its existing contracts with hotel and casino chains to persuade those chains not to oppose the union’s organizing the chains’ non-union hotels. But the vast majority of workers’ gains in recent years have come as a result of legislative victories in Democratic-controlled states and cities where labor-community coalitions are large and effective.
Indeed, some of the most dramatic gains are seen by groups of workers who lack the legal standing to bargain collectively, but who have come together anyway to win in legislative bodies. The National Domestic Workers Alliance persuaded the legislatures and governors in New York, California, Massachusetts and Hawaii to enact a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that entitles domestic employees to workers’ compensation, days off and paid sick days. The Taxi Workers Alliance has persuaded the New York Taxi Commission to set aside a small portion of each fare to establish a disability and supplemental health care fund for the city’s drivers— after demonstrating its clout with occasional one-day strikes that brought taxi service in the city to a halt. The TWA also provides drivers with a range of legal and educational services.
The AFL-CIO’s Working America project has waged a door-to-door voter-contact operation that has succeeded in enlisting 3 million members nationally over the past decade, and that has recently expanded its focus from national and state elections to local economic issues. The Albuquerque City Council, for instance, was successfully pressured by Working America to set, and then enforce, compliance with a municipal minimum wage standard.
The limitation that these three disparate organizations share is that their members have no common employer and, hence, no collective bargaining agreement from which these organizations can, through a dues-set-aside, financially sustain themselves. And as a steadily larger share of American workers are labeled independent contractors or can find work (even if it’s full-time) only through temporary employment agencies, the share of workers even eligible for collective bargaining continues to shrink. (Independent contractors are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, the federal law that confers collective bargaining rights on other classes of workers.) As David Rolf, who heads the SEIU in Washington State and is the mastermind of Seattle’s $15 wage campaign, points out, there are now more American workers not covered under the National Labor Relations Act’s guarantee of collective bargaining rights than there are members of American unions.
Reclaiming their status as employees—and hence subject to wage-and-hour laws and eligible for collective bargaining—has increasingly become a focus for groups of workers. This is a battle waged in courts and regulatory agencies. Take the case of FedEx, which claims that all of the company’s drivers are independent contractors. Contrast that with its competitor, United Parcel Service, which has long treated its drivers as employees, recognizing the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as the drivers’ bargaining agent. What makes FedEx drivers independent contractors—a status FedEx has inflicted on them to ensure they don’t unionize—has long been a mystery, solved only last week when the court said that they’re not. Last week, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit Federal Appellate Court ruled that FedEx had misclassified more than 2,000 of its Northern California drivers as independent contractors when they are actually employees. (This case was limited to the company’s drivers in Northern California; the rest remain smacked with the "independent contractor" label.)
A kindred battle being fought by workers is to compel their actual employer to acknowledge that it is their actual employer. McDonald’s, for example, claims that its franchise operators, and not the McDonald’s Corporation, are responsible for the wages and working conditions of those who toil under the golden arches. The recent opinion by the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel that McDonald’s may be treated as a joint employer, alongside individual franchise owners, of its myriad burger-flippers could help erode the layers of deniability that companies like McDonald’s hide behind when its workers complain of low wages and poor working conditions.
Similarly, a ruling last year by California’s Labor Commissioner, Julie Su, to hold Wal-Mart partly liable for wage and hour violations experienced by its warehouse workers in the Inland Empire, even though they’re nominally employed by temp agencies, could have a similar effect. Such rulings can win more generous settlements for particular groups of workers, but it would take a cascade of such rulings, and a good deal else, to persuade McDonald’s and Wal-Mart that they should allow their workers to unionize.
The good news for workers is that more and more unions have looked into the abyss and decided to change some of the way they do business. In declaring, “We’re not going to let the employer determine who are members are any longer,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was saying that unions should take in as members those workers who backed the union even in organizing campaigns that management defeated—that is, accept members even in the absence of collective bargaining agreements that enable those workers to pay dues. The United Auto Workers has established just such a local union for those workers who choose to join at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, even though the UAW narrowly lost a recognition election at that plant. The Communications Workers has long had some locals of workers it doesn’t represent in collective bargaining. The AFL-CIO has affiliated the Taxi Workers Alliance as a member union, even though the TWA’s members are independent contractors. Seattle’s Rolf plans to establish an organization, with independent funding, that will help new kinds of organizations that seek to represent workers in the absence of traditional collective bargaining. What form those organizations may take, and whether they can restore American workers’ fortunes, remains to be seen. For now, on this Labor Day, what gains may come will largely come legislatively, in statehouses and city halls.