The AFL-CIO Is on Sound Political Ground to Push for Wage Increases

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

“Raising wages is the single standard by which leadership will be judged,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced Wednesday at the federation’s conference unveiling labor’s political agenda. To that end, he said, the AFL-CIO would launch projects this year in the four states that hold the first four presidential primaries and caucuses of 2016 — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — as a way to make presidential candidates spell out exactly what they would do to boost Americans’ increasingly anemic wages.

The focus on wages is hardly new to U.S. labor, of course. In 1996, Trumka’s predecessor as federation president, John Sweeney, co-authored a book with David Kusnet titled “America Needs a Raise.” Since Sweeney’s book appeared, however, the raise has all but disappeared from the lives of U.S. workers. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted in addressing the conference, the bottom 90 percent of Americans, who received 70 percent of the income growth between 1935 and 1980, have gotten precisely zero percent of the income growth since 1997.

The AFL-CIO is on sound ground politically, no less than economically, in making candidates’ positions on increasing wages the key to labor’s support. In November’s midterm elections, after all, voters in four solidly conservative states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — overwhelmingly approved ballot measures increasing their respective state’s minimum wage.

Trumka also announced that the federation would initiate projects in seven cities that would organize workers — whether union members or not — in campaigns to boost wages and enact such pro-employee ordinances as mandating paid sick days or requiring retailers to give their workers sufficient advance notice of their hours. The cities range from such liberal bastions as Minneapolis and Washington, where legislation that pushes the envelope of workers’ rights can be enacted, to cities such as San Diego and Atlanta, where demographic change is creating the possibility of more progressive government, to Columbus, where creating an organization of low-wage workers could help keep Ohio in the Democratic column in the 2016 presidential election.

Trumka’s emphasis on cities, not states, acknowledges one of the fundamental realities of political power in the United States right now: While Democrats control both the legislature and governor’s office in just seven states, Republicans control them in 24. At the same time, 25 of the 30 largest U.S. cities have Democratic mayors. It’s cities, not states, that have set the highest minimum-wage standards, adopted the most immigrant-friendly policies and passed the most far-reaching environmental protections. The nation’s laboratories of progressive democracy, the AFL-CIO clearly understands, are its city halls.

The federation’s seven-cities project has the potential to do more than create more pro-worker ordinances. With most private-sector union organizing blocked by employer opposition and weak protections for workers who seek to form unions, the project could also generate organizations of low-wage workers, whether union or not, that might become a force in their cities and states. Alongside the nation’s existing unions, other organizations — somewhat like the 19th century’s Knights of Labor — could arise with the capacity to advance workers’ causes politically. Lacking the capacity to bargain collectively with their employers, such groups would be halfway houses for workers’ interests, but until labor law and corporate practices are altered to allow for union organizing again, a halfway house is better than nothing.

The missing link in labor’s raise-the-wage agenda is what to do about the majority of workers who make too much to be affected by minimum wage increases, or who already have paid sick days, but whose incomes have nonetheless stagnated or declined while the cost of college and medical care has continued to rise. Some points on labor’s to-do list — embracing a trade policy that doesn’t put American workers in competition with workers in the developing world, investing more in roads, rails and bridges — address those concerns somewhat, but workers also need policies that address the wage gap more directly.

One such policy informs a bill that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, introduced this week. The bill would prohibit publicly traded corporations from taking tax deductions for their chief executives’ “performance pay” in excess of $1 million unless they give their employees’ raises in line with the nation’s productivity increases. If the company’s performance is so terrific that the CEO deserves a huge bonus, its employees likely had something to do with it, too, and should also reap a (considerably more modest) reward. That’s the spirit that informs the AFL-CIO’s new project and that labor wants to see in the candidates who seek its support.


This has been reposted from The Washington Post.

Harold Meyerson also is political editor and columnist for the L.A. Weekly, the nation’s largest metropolitan weekly, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post.. In 2009, Atlantic Monthly named Mr. Meyerson one of 50 Most Influential Columnists. He is the author of Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?, a biography of Broadway lyricist Yip Harburg. From 1991 through 1995, Meyerson hosted the weekly show “Real Politics” on radio station KCRW, the Los Angeles area’s leading NPR affiliate. He is a frequent guest on television and radio talk shows.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Harold Meyerson

Union Matters

Steel for Wind Power

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

Siemens Gamesa last month laid off 130 workers at its turbine blade manufacturing plant in Iowa, just months after GE Renewable Energy decided to close an Arkansas factory and eliminate 470 jobs.

The companies reported shrinking demand for their products, even though U.S. consumption of wind energy increases every year.

America’s prosperity depends not only on harnessing this crucial energy source but also ensuring that highly skilled U.S. workers build the components with the cleanest technology available.

Right now, the nation relies on imported steel and turbine components from foreign manufacturers like China while America’s own steel industry—well equipped for this production—struggles because of dumping and other unfair trade practices.

Steel makes up the bulk of turbine hubs and the wind towers themselves. It’s also used to make the cranes and platforms necessary for installing the towers.

Yet the potential boon to America’s steel industry is just one reason to ramp up domestic production of wind energy infrastructure.

American steel production ranks among the cleanest in the world, while China has the highest carbon emissions of any steelmaking nation and flouts environmental regulations.

The nation’s highly-skilled steelmaking workforce must play an essential role in the deeply-needed revitalization and modernization of the nation’s failing infrastructure. Producing the components for harnessing wind energy domestically and cleanly is an important step that will put Americans to work and position the United States to be world leaders in this growing industry.


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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work