Executive Director Reports

The word President Obama left out

Along with tens of millions of other viewers, I watched President Obama declare that building the middle class would be the focus of his second term as president. His priorities are right, but he’ll find it hard to achieve them without strengthening one critical thing he neglected to mention: Unions.

Throughout his State of the Union message, the president emphasized the importance of education, from his call to make preschool programs universal, as they already are in Oklahoma and Georgia, to his insistence that higher education be made more affordable.

Certainly no one can dispute that college graduates’ prospects for greater income are much better than someone with a high school degree.

And statistics demonstrate that preschool programs, particularly for children from low-income families who have neither the time nor money to provide educational nourishment, reap dividends. It’s hard to imagine that Georgia and Oklahoma, hardly bastions of liberal government, would make the investment in these programs if there wasn’t a demonstrable payoff.

However, what the president didn’t say is that over the past three or four decades – despite the fact that more people are graduating from college, and despite the fact that more kids are enrolled in early childhood programs – the real incomes and real purchasing power of the middle class have either stagnated or actually declined, depending on the year one uses as a benchmark.

If education alone were the answer to building a bigger and stronger middle class, we should see people moving up out of poverty, not falling back into it, as the country makes educational advances. Clearly that has not happened.

Economists tell us that education contributes to productivity and that increased productivity leads to expanded wealth. Over the past few years U.S. productivity has grown, but the wealth it has produced, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, has not been widely shared.

An increasing share of the bounty that is produced goes to corporate CEO’s, big stockholders, and other poobahs who constitute the infamous 1 percent at the top of the income scale. Between 2009 and 2011 earnings for the bottom 99 percent declined by .4 percent while the top one percent saw their incomes soar by 11.2 percent.

Since 1999, the median household income has dropped by 9 percent after accounting for inflation

There are lots of folks with a college education who are unemployed or who are working at jobs that don’t require a college degree. Increasing the supply of those with a higher education in the absence of expanding demand will only serve to further depress the salaries of college grads.

Then, of course, there are millions of jobs vital to our economy that don’t require a higher education and received little mention in the president’s address – non-professional health care workers, employees in the hospitality industry, retail and warehouse workers, truck drivers and hundreds of others.

There was a time when people employed in those industries could support a family, buy a home, own a car, and maybe even take a vacation once in a while. They were part of a thriving middle class.

For all too many of them that’s no longer the case, and while it’s good that the President called for raising the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour – $18,000 a year – that alone won’t bring anyone out of poverty.

We need expanded educational opportunity and a higher minimum wage – which even at $9.00 would not match its historical peak in real terms--but what we need even more is a level playing field where the bargaining power of workers is restored.

In the middle of the last century, 30 percent of the workforce was organized in unions. The workers of that time were not as educated as workers today, but through collective action they insisted on and got their share of the economic pie and gained entrance into the middle class.

The era from the end of World War II through the mid 1970’s was a period of shared prosperity and the highest growth our economy has experienced. It made America the richest country on earth.

To be sure, the economy of today demands more education of its workers, and the workforce is better educated. But workers’ share of the wealth they produce is shrinking, a development that’s not good for individuals or for the economy as a whole.

The missing word in the president’s speech – what connects higher productivity with shared prosperity – was “union” – as in “labor union.” It is impossible to talk seriously about strengthening the middle class in this country without mentioning unions, given their central role in creating it.

Whether they were autoworkers in Michigan, rubber workers in Ohio, steelworkers in Chicago or mineworkers in southern Illinois, millions of folks made it into the middle class not because they had beneficent CEOs, but because they banded together and demanded their fair share of the wealth. They had power and they wielded it.

That power has seriously eroded. Jobs have been shipped overseas or to the anti-union south, and the balance has tipped heavily to powerful corporations.

Today fewer than 7 percent of private sector workers are represented by unions. As a result, wages in many industries are being driven downward, retirement plans are barebones, and health care increasingly costly.

Now the editorial boards and the politicians complain that unions are too powerful in the public sector, where about a third of workers are union members. . What they mean is that public employees too should give up our defined pension benefits, pay lots more for health care and cut our salaries – in short, start on the downward path out of the middle class.

That’s why it’s important for all of us to speak up and speak out, to remind ourselves, our family , our friends, our neighbors, and anyone else who will listen that you can’t build a middle class in this country without a strong labor movement. That’s how the middle class was built in the past, and that’s how it will be done in the future, if it’s going to be done at all.

We need to rebuild unions in the private sector, not tear them down in the public sector.

It’s unfortunate that the president didn’t use his microphone to utter the word “union.” Let’s make sure we use ours.