Today's News & Commentary — September 2
The President flew to Milwaukee on Labor Day to deliver what the LA Times called a “fiery, populist speech,” one “marking the informal kickoff of a push this fall to stave off Republican control of the Senate.” He reminded the union audience of his health care achievements and ongoing efforts on behalf of workers. The President also used his weekly radio address to renew his goal of raising the minimum wage to $10.10/hour, a proposal that has stalled in Congress. Relatedly, fast food workers plan to renew their push for a $15/hour minimum wage with a day of widespread civil disobedience and planned actions this Thursday. According to the New York Times, restaurant workers will strike in over 100 cities. The movement will also engage thousands of home care workers, represented by SEIU, in an effort to significantly broaden the base of the movement.
In other political news, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that his union would need to carefully evaluate any presidential candidate’s economic team before endorsing anyone. The Wall Street Journal reports that Trumka criticized the revolving door of advisors in the Clinton and Obama Administrations who “came from, participated in and will go back to Wall Street.”
Labor Day also brought a number of longer pieces reflecting on the current state of the labor movement. At The American Interest, Phil Fishman wrote about the role unions play in spreading democracy, both by reducing inequality and by encouraging political participation. He argues that because of the beleaguered state of the American labor movement, unions have had to fight defensive battles against recalcitrant employers at home rather than focus much-needed energy abroad in developing countries. Fishman urges labor to reclaim its role in the formation of American foreign policy in the coming years, for the sake of the labor movement and the cause of democracy more generally.
The New Republic published an interview with labor strategist and researcher Rich Yeselson on the current state of unionism. He argues that while in most of Europe the basic legitimacy of unions as a facet of liberal democracy is accepted, that is still hotly contested in the United States, where opponents try to eliminate unions altogether. Yeselson also points out that while the timing seems right for a mass mobilization of pro-union workers, “historically, unions don’t do incremental growth. There is some kind of social crisis—a war, political unrest, economic collapse—and memberships surges. The rest of the time, often for decades, membership is flat or declines.”
Robert Samuelson writes for Real Clear Markets that the Great Recession’s ultimate impact on wages in unclear. On one hand, unemployment has fallen unexpectedly quickly, Americans are much less pessimistic about the economy than during the Recession’s height, and there is a surge in reported job openings. On the other, the surplus in available jobs has put downward pressure on wages, which some economists fear might “trigger an inflationary wage-price spiral.” Samuelson thinks we may be nearing an “inflection point, where worker supply and demand are in closer balance.” If that’s true, it would mean that “workers’ bargaining power would improve with tighter markets: markets where businesses have to pay a bit more to keep employees; where younger workers might have competing job offers; and where someone could quit with a reasonable expectation of finding another job.”