Minimum wage labor workers are nearing their breaking point. The federal minimum wage rate, set in July 2009 at $7.25 per hour, is simply no longer livable. Its purchasing power has decreased significantly from $10.34 per hour in the 1960s. Attempts to raise the current wage have been repeatedly blocked by a consistently do-nothing Congress. Struggling workers even picketed outside Alice Walton’s Park Avenue apartment on Oct. 17, demanding that Walmart, which is her inheritance, pay a livable wage.
For all of the controversy surrounding this issue of labor, conspicuously absent from the national debate are the labor unions. The unions secured significant gains in workers’ benefits and fair wages early in the 20th century. Walmart explicitly forbids unions on its premises. A debate over the minimum wage should be right up their alley.
But the union movement in the United States is, effectively, history. Private sector union membership rests at a pitiful 6.7 percent — a marked drop from the 35 percent membership peak during the 1950s. Union detractors cite extensive corruption and unreasonable demands as justification for the union movement to stay dead. This is a new capitalist America and labor is no longer welcome.
Yet, for all the setbacks and impediments, unions work. The 1950s saw the peak of the union movement in America, and with it came the greatest income equality in American history. With the decline of unions, income has only grown more concentrated among the rich. Even today, the average unionized worker makes $200 more a week than the average non-union worker.
Lawmakers do not want to believe that higher wages are necessary. What they and other anti-labor advocates fail to understand is that the burden of fair worker treatment rests squarely with the government in the current system. Minimum wage workers now rely on food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing to survive — all of which come out of taxpayers’ pockets. Passing the burden of livable wages back onto companies would not only lift the burden from government, but also relieve government expenditures.
But stubbornness and deaf ears are the order of the day in a post-union America. The very concept of labor relations has been tainted with anti-socialist fearmongering. Lawmakers, in their stubbornness, have proven themselves unfit to deal with the cries for a livable wage.
If you cannot go through, go around. Much as we may grumble and shift our feet, the inaction surrounding the minimum wage shows that, perhaps now more than ever, we need unions. They can speak for those who do not have a voice. They can keep companies accountable for their actions. They can help minimum wage workers survive.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct 22 print issue. Email Richard Shu at [email protected]