Opinion

The Podium

An essential movement in the face of wage inequality

Supporters of ballot iniatives to raise the state's minimum wage and require more employers to allow workers to earn sick days held a rally at the State House in July. Jim Davis Photo/Globe Staff

Supporters of ballot iniatives to raise the state's minimum wage and require more employers to allow workers to earn sick days held a rally at the State House in July. Jim Davis Photo/Globe Staff

Organized labor is on the rebound in the United States for one overriding reason — never have we needed unions more than we do right now.

There is a growing recognition in virtually every sector of our society, even among key Wall Street analysts, that this country is being badly hurt by galloping income disparity. When both the International Monetary Fund and Wall Street rating agency Standard & Poor’s release reports detailing how the widening gap between the top and the bottom is stifling growth, it is clear we have a serious problem.

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Income inequality is the worst it has been in 85 years, even as income growth among the wealthiest continues to rapidly outpace everyone else. Since 2009, 95 percent of economic gains have gone to the top one percent of earners.

As the IMF and S&P studies make clear, this drags down our entire economy. It’s also a disaster for the middle class, where the constant downward pressure on wages is stagnating earnings. It is a blow to our American vision of ourselves and the cherished idea that anyone who works hard can make it in this country. But the worst toll is being exacted on the lowest-paid among us — workers at Walmart and McDonald’s; highly educated and poorly paid adjunct professors; the homecare workers who tend to people with disabilities and the elderly; taxi drivers and baggage handlers — all of whom are being left out of the American Dream.

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More and more Americans are saying it is simply wrong to work a 40-hour week, only to go home to a shelter, eat at a soup kitchen, or be told by your wealthy corporate employer that you should go apply for food stamps.

That’s why labor is back.

The skyrocketing share of the economic pie being consumed by the top 1 percent, which compared to the crumbs left for the rest of the workforce, has begun to galvanize workers across Massachusetts and the nation.

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And the results have been tremendous, with dozens of major victories for the American worker in recent months. The newly-introduced $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle captured headlines across the country, while in California, thousands of cafeteria workers, special education assistants, campus safety monitors and other Los Angeles Unified School District school service workers will also see a $15 wage by 2016. In New York, McDonald’s workers won nearly $500,000 from a wage theft settlement earlier this year. The national Fight for $15 is expanding — and has become a rallying cry for low wage workers across multiple industries.

Major retailer Target has agreed to update its vendor contract language with higher labor standards following low wage worker protests in Minneapolis, while low-wage fast food workers continue to protest and strike in cities throughout the nation for the first time ever in their $184 billion dollar industry. This summer the Adjunct Faculty Loan Fairness Act was introduced in Congress, which would help thousands of adjuncts — who make up the majority of college instructors in the United States — access the loan forgiveness program for individuals involved in public service.

Our experience here at home is no different. In Massachusetts we saw approval of the highest state minimum wage in the nation, additional workplace protections for state employees, and local caregivers winning new legislation that mandates a public hearing process prior to the sale of nursing homes. This legislation will play a critical role in curbing the rash of recent slash and burn nursing home takeovers by out-of-state companies that have increasingly threatened seniors, caregivers, and families in our state.

Other Massachusetts victories include a domestic workers’ Bill of Rights that more clearly defines working hours and responsibilities, and includes new protections from sexual harassment and workplace retaliation. In June, a Day of Action in Boston, Springfield and Worcester brought together more than a thousand low-wage workers across a variety of industries. That daylong event has grown into a weeklong series of protests that are taking place throughout the first week of September. Meanwhile, a November ballot initiative for earned sick time has earned widespread support from voters, business owners, and religious groups across the state.

To be sure, much more work remains to be done — by elected officials, community leaders, employers, and workers. Our economy is turning out more low wage jobs now than prior to the recession. In Massachusetts, a minimum wage worker earns $5,400 less each year today than in 1968, when adjusted for inflation. This comes as the cost of rent, groceries, heat, electricity, education, and childcare continue to soar.

But we are making gains. That’s because in this era of growing income disparity, which has truly reached crisis levels, individuals across this country realize the value and necessity of unions. Organized labor not only helps to ensure higher wages and better access to health insurance and retirement, but it creates a higher quality of life and a stronger economy for everyone. This Labor Day of 2014, an occasion meant to celebrate the labor movement and the economic achievements of workers, comes at the dawn of a rising low wage worker movement against inequality — a rising tide of aspiration and struggle against the odds for which we should all be able to cheer.

Veronica Turner is executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East in Massachusetts and secretary of the SEIU African American National Board.
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