The New York Times recently reported that–for the first time–a full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in America at market rates. That means more and more people like Michelle Kennedy–a former Senate page and author of Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (With Kids) in America–are finding themselves homeless and living out of their cars.
At a town hall meeting in Ohio on April 2, Representative Sherrod Brown, a staunch advocate for social and economic rights (he and Bernie Sanders are the two best candidates running for Senate in 2006) railed against the economic hardship brought on by stagnant wages: “It is unacceptable that someone can work full-time–and work hard–and not be able to lift their family out of poverty.” He blasted a system where a full-time minimum-wage worker earns $10,500 a year, while “last year the CEO of Wal-Mart earned $3,500 an hour. The CEO of Halliburton earned about $8,300 an hour. And the CEO of ExxonMobil earned about $13,700 an hour.”
Robert Kuttner recently argued in the Boston Globe that while people are blaming undocumented workers for driving down wages, the real villains are “the people running the government, who have made sure that the lion’s share of the productivity gains go to the richest 1 percent of Americans. With different tax, labor, health and housing policies, native-born workers and immigrants alike could get a fairer share of our productive economy.” Kuttner points to Census data showing that “median household income fell 3.8 percent, or $1,700, from 1999 to 2004… during a period when average productivity rose 3 percent per year.” And as income is falling, working people are increasingly squeezed. Costs for housing, healthcare, education and childcare rose 46 percent between 1991 and 2002, according to economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute.
And the situation is getting worse. Look at the Delphi Corporation’s moves. The company asked a bankruptcy judge to void its union contracts so it could lower wages and benefits. CEO Steve Miller played the ever reliable global-competition card, saying in a recent Washington Post article, “At the end of the day, Delphi must be competitive in the global marketplace.” But as Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, makes clear, this new tactic will further erode labor’s power in the workplace. “What in our laws and in our democracy gives a bankruptcy judge the right to take away freedom of association and collective bargaining?” Bronfenbrenner asks. “Bankruptcy judges should not have that power.”
In the current climate–with tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, a minimum wage frozen for eight years in a GOP-dominated Congress, deterioration of labor’s power in the workplace and corporate-written free-trade agreements that exacerbate these trends–it is heartening to hear Sherrod Brown make the case that “a hard day’s work should mean a fair day’s pay.”
The Democratic Party needs to find its moral compass, its heart and soul. Closing the gap between workers’ pay and CEO compensation and raising the minimum wage (a movement that is under way in many states)–is what heart and soul are all about.