For generations America’s promise has been that opportunity to create a better life for your family awaits if you work hard and play by the rules. But this Labor Day, that promise is more out of reach than ever for an increasing number of people.
Income inequality skyrockets as more of our nation’s gains go to an increasingly smaller group. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average chief executive officer of the 350 largest companies in the US raked in a whopping $18.9 million in compensation in 2017, a 17.6 percent increase over 2016. Workers’ wages are not even keeping up with the cost of inflation.
The situation is even bleaker for people of color, women and those without a college degree. All groups are falling further behind, despite companies making empty promises about using the windfall of the Trump Administration corporate tax cuts to boost wages. The negotiating power of working people—achieved by standing together in a union—is at its lowest point in generations.
The future of work is perhaps more uncertain in 2018 than it has ever been. Automation and artificial intelligence are creating deep anxiety among economists and workers alike. The even more troubling trend has been the shift from permanent, traditional jobs to insecure, temporary employment that offers few benefits and low wages.
Technology doesn’t have to take away jobs. It can be used to make work easier, safer, more creative and more skilled. But technology can also exacerbate the injustices that are occurring. In the wrong hands, technological advance will lead to greater income inequality, the misclassification of workers as independent contractors instead of employees and, perhaps, the loss of jobs on a mass scale. Promises of a universal basic income when all the jobs have been automated does nothing to ease concerns over the future.
CEOs are fueling a transition from traditional jobs to low-wage “gigs.” These corporations may be using new technology to cheat workers, but there’s nothing new about companies rigging the system to pad their own profits at the expense of those who create their profits.
The answer to these problems is simple. Workers must have a voice in the future of work broadly, and their own jobs, specifically. If policymakers and CEOs were listening, they’d know that working people—especially young people—don’t want gigs; they want the security of decent wages and benefits. Like everyone, they want a safety net for the tough times in life.
It’s no wonder young people support unions. A recent Pew study found 68 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have a favorable view of unions. In the past year working people across the country—from teachers to digital media professionals. Janitors and engineers—have been rising to collectively demand fair treatment on the job.
There’s a reason for the surging interest in unions. Standing together on the job is a pathway to a middle-class life. In California, if you’re a member of a union you are 37 percent more likely to have employer-sponsored health care, 51 percent more likely to have a retirement plan and 30 percent less likely to rely on public assistance, according to University of California, Berkeley researchers.
In the wake of the Great Depression, workers joined to restore equality to our economy. When Memphis sanitation workers were abused, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr rallied with them and their union to declare “I am a Man.” Workers always rise to reset the economy. That must happen again.
We must refocus on building a future that includes access to good jobs, affordable health care, retirement security for all, racial and gender equality and living wages. To do that, workers need a seat at the table. The future of work must not be determined by the wealthiest among us. We know what happens when their money drowns out our voices.
This Labor Day, we need to prioritize uniting working people to fight for an economy that restores America’s promise. It won’t be easy, but when working people stand together, we are capable of extraordinary things.
Art Pulaski is Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the California Labor Federation, firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.