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The Progress Made and Challenges Ahead for Workers This Labor Day

On Labor Day, let’s all take a moment to thank our bosses for the rights and benefits they have so generously granted us.

Oh wait, that’s right. Decent wages and working conditions were never gifts. Workers organized, fought, and in many cases died for each and every improvement in our working lives. And workers are fighting today—to protect the rights we’ve won, and to advance new and needed labor laws.

Barriers to good jobs

The components of a good job are pretty basic: fair pay, decent benefits, a safe workplace, a way to have your voice heard on the job. Yet basic as these elements are, they are rare—and getting more so.

One obstacle that stands between workers and the good jobs they seek is the employment credit check, in which potential employers root through your credit history, looking for evidence that you’ve had difficulty paying bills. For most of us, such difficulty is why we are seeking a good job in the first place. But for many employers, a poor credit rating means they won’t hire you, regardless of how well qualified you are. And because people of color disproportionately report having poor credit, these credit checks act as racially discriminatory barriers to opportunity. 

We can change this. One year ago, New York City enacted the nation’s strongest ban on employment credit checks, won after years of coalition-led education and advocacy. While New York’s law is not perfect, it represents a strong starting point for states and cities to build on. 

Working to live, not vice versa

Almost all of the industrialized nations recognize that people do not live only to work; they have outside lives and family responsibilities. For that reason, paid family leave is common. Not so in the United States, where the closest such federal program is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables some American workers to take unpaid leave.

One theory behind the United States’ lone stance is that the market will prevail: if paid family leave helps the private sector attract and retain talented workers, private employers will offer it. But the invisible hand of the market has never rocked a cradle; in New York state, for example, nearly 9 out of 10 working people—6.4 million individuals—did not have access to paid family leave through their employers. 

In April, New York became the fourth state (after California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) to guarantee paid family leave. Others could do the same, and so could the federal government. Of course, to achieve this will require the leadership of organized labor and working people—and a recognition that caring for one another is a public good, not just a personal responsibility to be shouldered by individual workers, overwhelmingly women.

Public sector jobs helped shrink the racial wealth gap

Black and Latino workers are not only paid less than white workers, but they are also more likely to be employed in jobs that fail to offer health coverage, paid leave, or retirement plans. So public sector employment has always been important for African-American workers.

Today 21.2 percent of all black women and 15.4 percent of all black men work in the public sector, compared to 17.5 percent and 11.8 percent of white women and men. This high participation in public sector employment helps to close the wage gap between white and black workers. In 2014, black private sector workers earned just 78 percent, on average, of the wages of their white counterparts. In the public sector, however, black workers earned 90 percent of the wages of white workers. But public sector jobs are shrinking in number, and many are shedding one of their most valuable benefits.

The share of all workers employed by the government has fallen since 1994. If that share had held constant over the past 20 years, there would be nearly 2.3 million more public jobs today. This translates to almost 320,000 lost public jobs for black workers in the past two decades, a huge blow for the black middle class.

The pensions provided by public employment have also played a crucial role in boosting economic security for African-American workers. Demos found that the poverty rate among black retirees without public pensions is nearly 20 percent higher than among black retirees with public pensions. Unfortunately, over the past five years, 34 states have either cut benefits for new workers, raised the retirement age (effectively a benefit cut) or increased workers’ required pension contributions (effectively a salary cut), or enacted multiple reductions, which has happened in the majority of states that have made pension cuts. 

Such erosions of hard-won benefits remind us that Labor Day exists not only to celebrate labor’s achievements but to recommit to standing up against the decades-long effort to roll back the rights workers have won.

Bad news/good news about government contractors

According to a 2013 Senate report, government contractors employ about 22 percent of the nation’s workforce—some 26 million workers. By no means are your tax dollars necessarily supporting the good jobs we all want to see. In 2013, Demos found that approximately 21 million people—8 million workers and their families—rely on low-wage jobs with firms that receive a significant portion of their revenue from federal funds. Over 70% of these workers are women and nearly 45% are people of color, which makes the federal government the largest funder of low-wage employment for working women and people of color.

Demos also found that federal contractors conducted widespread and serious violations of health, safety, and labor laws. You may not be surprised to learn that non-union contractors were responsible for a disproportionate share of such violations. 

The good news is that on August 31, 2016, the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order went into effect, giving agencies greater ability to deny federal contracts to companies with labor-law violations, and making it harder for contractors to use wage theft or other means to cheat their employees. Demos was one of the organizations that advocated for this executive order, and we will join our allies to protect it: Congressional Republicans are trying to use the National Defense Authorization Act to gut the executive order.

Decline of organized labor hurts even non-union workers

Despite the many benefits unions provide to workers and our economy, organized labor has been in decline for decades. Last month the Economic Policy Institute issued a report arguing that this decline has seriously damaged the earning power of even non-union working men in the private sector. After analyzing nearly four decades of wage data, EPI estimated that male non-union workers in the private sector would be earning, on average, $2,074 more per year if the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector had stayed flat since 1979. Overall, EPI found that male non-union workers in the private sector have been losing about $109 billion per year. Women in non-union, private sector jobs took a much smaller hit to their income—about $24 billion annually—because men were significantly likelier to be union members in 1979. 

No accident

The Fight for $15 has made low wages a centerpiece of the national conversation—and workers have achieved this by demanding both better pay and a union to fight for their continued rights. Seemingly invulnerable corporations in the fast food and retail sectors have succumbed to the nationwide protests and righteous demands of workers. While it’s still unclear whether the national Fight For $15 campaign will result in some form of union representation for fast-food workers, it has already boosted service sector wages in many parts of the country. And a higher industry-wide wage floor, in turn, has changed the baseline in negotiations between unions and employers.

None of this happened by accident. It happened because of the hard, courageous efforts of organized labor and activists nationwide. So on this Labor Day, let’s all take a moment to thank each other—the working women and men who came before us, and the colleagues who work beside us every day.