It’s a familiar refrain to teachers and public employees:
- “We sure would love to help you but you know the budgetary situation just won’t allow it.”
- “I certainly do value the job teachers do, and rate education as a top priority, but times simply have been too tough.”
- “You know, the economic policies we’re pursuing now are so effective that just hang in there, in a year or two we’ll no doubt be able to authorize impressive raises and get those healthcare premiums reigned back in.”
Comments such as these flow year after year from state politicians, especially in the many states controlled by Republican lawmakers. In the meantime, state employees continually endure meager or non-existent raises (which are actually pay cuts when you take inflation into account), as well as steadily degraded health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits. The kicker in all this is that it is unnecessary.
This austerity for government employees (and most other working Americans also) is not a consequence of difficult times in our economy, especially not in the eight years since we turned the corner from the great recession. It is a consequence of economic policies purposely contrived to suppress both wages and worker’s rights, and to direct absolutely as much money as possible into the hands of the wealthy. It is engineered by bought-and-paid-for politicians, mainly Republicans, who pander to the interests of the big-money contributors to their campaigns, and hurt our working people and our country in doing so. It’s a “race to the bottom,” and here is how Republican lawmakers work it.The Race to the Bottom is not a consequence of difficult times in our economy. It is caused by economic policies contrived to suppress both wages and worker’s rights, and to direct as much money as possible into the hands of the wealthy.Click To Tweet
“Race to the Bottom” step 1 – Hold down wages
Their first step is to hold down employee wages, at both the state and federal levels. Republican lawmakers never propose a raise in the minimum wage, and they fight like cats and dogs to defeat this proposal when it is made by other lawmakers.
It is a myth that raising the minimum wage benefits only lower income earners, though it certainly does do that very effectively. The truth is, the height of the first floor determines the height of all the floors above it. Raising the minimum wage (which was once done regularly and prudently) in time elevates the paychecks of virtually all employees up to mid-management.
“Race to the Bottom” step 2 – Kill unions
Simultaneously, they continually work to weaken and kill unions. They pass “right to work” laws (which really should be renamed “right to work for less” statutes), eliminate prevailing wage requirements, and take other actions designed to weaken the bargaining power of unions and make it very difficult for new unions to be established.
In the 1950s and 60s the economy of the United States was not only growing, but was also providing “shared prosperity” – when the GDP grew and Wall Street benefited, American workers benefitted as well. Union membership was very robust and included about one-third of American workers. This strong union presence in the economy, along with a government that said “what’s good for the middle class is good for America” and backed it up in policies, is what created and grew the middle class. How? By requiring that companies give a fair proportion of their income and growth to their employees in wages and benefits.
Contrast that to today when union membership in our country has declined to about 11%, and many unions that still exist have been weakened by Republican policies, and it becomes more understandable that when you adjust for inflation, American workers have not had a significant raise for about 40 years. This, despite the fact that profits for many companies have been strong, especially in recent years. And, in that same time period, the average pay of CEOs after similarly adjusting for inflation has risen nearly 1,000%.
“Race to the Bottom” step 3 – Starve government
An additional effect of these stagnant wages, besides tough times for the majority of us, is flat tax revenue for governments. And, because incomes for most workers are low to quite marginal, reliance on public assistance programs has increased, which further strains government budgets.
Now you would think that since our economy is growing well, even though little of that increase is making its way to workers, that tax revenue would still not suffer because the wealthy and corporations would take up the slack, especially with all the money they are making. Oh, but remember: the only thing Republicans love to do more than suppress wages for working people, is to cut tax rates for their corporate donors and the wealthy.
We have now come to the crux of the problem. Because of these two primary goals of Republicans – low wages for working people, low taxes for the wealthy and corporations – governments are in a perpetual state of tight budgets and spending cuts. Teachers, other public employees, and in reality, nearly all working Americans, have to continually tighten their belts, make economic sacrifices, and look to a future that never seems to get better. Corporations and the rich, meanwhile, profit handsomely, enjoy the fruits of a rigged system, and capture a ridiculously large and ever-growing part of the American economy. It is quite simply “the race to the bottom” for most of us, and it is definitely not going to change until the underlying policies that created and sustain it change.
The Solution, step 1 – Give everyone a raise.
So what to do? How do we break out of this economic hamster wheel for American public employees and other workers, and allow them to maintain a decent standard of living and quality of life for themselves and their families? It’s really quite simple. Give our people, and I mean all working people in this country, a raise. That is a direct, logical, quite doable, and very fair way to solve the problem.
We’ve already mentioned that most working Americans haven’t had a real raise in 40 years, despite the overall economy and almost all businesses showing profits from strong to outstanding. In other words, for a long time corporations have been showering their high profits onto CEOs and stockholders, and basically stiffing their employees who made earning these profits possible. On top of that, add the recent federal tax give-away to the wealthy and corporations, and it is clear that companies should be able to pay their employees fairly, which means considerably more.
I favor a national wage increase which would include gradually raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and a two-year wage bonus for virtually all employees making less than $200,000/year who will not see a direct increase in their checks due to the higher minimum wage. The benefits of a direct wage increase for all American workers at this time are overwhelming when compared to the never-ending proposals by Republicans for tax cuts for the well-to-do. Significant, direct wage increases paid by employers (including all government employers) would
- immediately lift many Americans out of poverty
- improve the standard of living for all workers
- dramatically increase tax revenue for all layers of government without actually raising taxes
- dramatically reduce reliance in our population on public assistance programs
- provide state, local, and the federal government much needed additional revenue for essential, currently underfunded purposes such as infrastructure, education, and national defense
- and provide the jet fuel for growth in our economy by giving it what it needs most but currently lacks: money in the pockets of people who will spend it.
Contrast this to the longer-term impacts of the recent Republican tax cut which are a surging budget deficit, higher taxes for most working and middle-class Americans after nine years, and even more money into the pockets of the 1% at the expense of everyone else.
The Solution, step 2 – Get politically active!
A second approach in terms of turning this economic conundrum around for working people is political activism. Labor unions and determined, effective strikes were an important key in building the middle class in this country in the first place. Their reduced presence and activity in recent decades is an important factor in the economic degradation of our middle class. As voters, you should support laws and the appointment of judges that empower unions, and that will fight for worker’s rights, safety, and benefits.
Wildcat strikes and demonstrations are called for as well. Forty years without a raise and with consistently eroding benefits is too long! What’s the American employee going to do, wait 80 years before action is taken?
The recently concluded West Virginia teachers strike is a prime example of what can be accomplished. Despite no clear legal right to strike, and three unions being involved but many teachers actually not even belonging to any union, the teachers mounted an impassioned, unified statewide strike that met with great success in terms of pay, benefits, policies, and principle.
Actions such as this are called for on many levels across the nation to increase employee wages, retirement, and other benefits. And we should remember that we are all in this together. Virtually all working Americans, both blue and white collar, have seen their compensation flat line in recent decades while most all of the growth in their productivity has been siphoned off to corporate interests. Public employees should support those in the private sector, teachers should support fast food and convenience store workers, organized labor should support wildcat movements, rural employees should support those in urban areas, and so on. When we allow one class of worker among us to be paid poverty or insufficient wages, we are hurting not just those people, but also our country, our economy, and our morality, and signaling to our bosses that they can pay us substandard wages as well.
The Solution, step 3 – Value your vote and use it wisely
Finally, and probably most importantly, place great stock in your vote. Cast it only for those politicians who supportdirectlyincreasing wages for employees, not those that ascribe to this trickle-down nonsense.Grown-ups know that things have to be paid for! Therefore, support candidates who are willing to consider reasonable taxes, especially on the wealthy or corporations, to fund employee raises and pensions, and important societal endeavors such as education and infrastructure that are essential for our economy to prosper.
A factor that I believe has hurt working Americans considerably has been casting votes for candidates on the basis of social issues or guns, only to have that politician do all they can to pass policies that do serious harm to the ability of most of their constituents to earn a decent living. It does not have to be this way. Remember, the ability to earn a wage that allows you to feed and support your family, afford to go to college, care for an elderly parent, retire withdignity, and get medical care when you or your child is sick is a moral issue too!
Look at the Democrats running in your district, and explore their views on issues such as guns or abortion. You may find their viewpoint is not as unreasonable as you thought, and you may wind up voting for them. But if that is not the case, and these issues prevent you from voting for a Democratic candidate, please don’t vote for a Republican whose policies will only do harm to you and your family’s economic fortunes. Find a third-party candidate to support, or write someone in (when my wife is in these dilemmas she sometimes writes in “Jesus”). Don’t buy this “bilateral choice” argument. Vote your principles. It may take an election cycle or two, but in time the desires of the electorate will be responded to and candidates will come forward with conservative social values, but who also support policies that directly benefit and strengthen our middle class. You will actually feel good about voting for them.
The development and presence of a strong middle class with its promises of fair pay, decent access to medical care, and a quality retirement, is what made our country unique, just, and strong; made us proud, and gave our children hope for the future. The middle class in our nation has been steadily degraded over the last 40 years and continues to be attacked. It is worth fighting for. Let’s mobilize ourselves and our neighbors in every effective, nonviolent way imaginable, and restore the hope and fortunes of our country, our children, and ourselves once again.The middle class is worth fighting for. Let’s mobilize ourselves and our neighbors in every effective, nonviolent way imaginable, and restore the hope and fortunes of our country, our children, and ourselves once again.Click To Tweet
Written by Richard Mauro of Galvanize America. Visit their web site for more articles like this one!