This week, hundreds of Chicago workers organized a major labor strike, demanding a wage floor of $15 an hour and the right to unionize. Their protests come on the heels of the largest strike in the fast food industry's history, which took place in December in New York City, and a nation-wide Walmart strike to protest what workers felt were unfair wages and treatment. Here in Baltimore, workers have also begun organizing around the idea of "fair development" — calling for higher wages and other benefits.
Chicago's strike represents just how contagious this type of unrest has become. Led by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, in collaboration with other local worker groups and unions, they are leading the "Fight for 15" campaign to raise the minimum wage.
Who can blame them? Minimum wage in Chicago, at $8.25, is already $1 more than the federal requirement. Yet if one works 40 hours a week, for 52 weeks a year, the resulting salary is $17,160 before taxes, well below the poverty level for a family of three. In November, the Census Bureau announced that more than 16 percent of the population lived in poverty, including almost 20 percent of American children. This figure had risen from 14.3 percent in 2009 and was at its highest level since 1993.
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The National Employment Law Project found last year that low-wage positions made up just 21 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, but they accounted for 58 percent of jobs "recovered." Additionally, researchers found that food service, retail and employment services represented 43 percent of employment growth over the past two years.
The workers organizing strikes and protests face tough odds, as unionism is widely perceived to be on the wane, even in the public sector. But something has to give. A mere 88,000 jobs were created in March, and labor-force participation is at its lowest since 1979, as millions have decided that the work world offers insufficient opportunities. If we can't figure out a way to incentivize stable employment through livable wages, then we could be in for years of economic stagnation or worse.
The protesting workers doubtless have decided they need to take matters into their own hands because Washington has done little to help.
To be sure, President Barack Obama has talked extensively about the need to revive the middle class and about the ill effects of a system in which the rich get richer and the rest fall behind. He has endorsed increasing the minimum wage and included a proposal to do so in his budget package.
But he has managed to accomplish little. Even talking about the problem inevitably leads to Republican cries of "class warfare" that drown out and end the conversation. But it's a conversation we need to have. Real annual median household income has dropped to $45,018, from $51,144 in 2010. Virtually all the gains from the economic recovery continue to go to the richest people in the United States.
The increasing polarization of our wealth is stunting economic growth, and that's bad for the poor and rich alike. But it is not inevitable. We're glad to see workers in Baltimore, New York, Chicago and elsewhere speak up and demand change. Washington needs to brave up and confront this too. An increase in the federal minimum wage won't solve the problem, but it would surely be a step in the right direction.