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In the Midst of Plenty: In Defense of American Workers

It has been over a half century since Jack Kerouac posited ‘whither goest thou, America?’ to a nation facing an uncertain future. Listening to the party platforms being created at both national political conventions it is apparent that the country is still trying to find its compass, and many issues have remained unresolved over the past fifty years. Progress made need not be diminished; however, the country must work harder to not only preserve what it has already achieved, but also engage more encompassing issues in a deliberate manner.

At a more fevered pitch than in previous decades, forces have been amassing along the country’s ideological divide and the U.S. middle- and working classes have firmly established themselves on both sides. Debating the country’s future has torn the population as it attempts to define the nation’s hierarchy of purpose: is it more important to defend the nation’s capitalistic expansion or preserve its programs for income security? The concepts seem diametrically opposed – the current debate has been structured as a capitalism v socialism argument – but they are more in line with each other then the political system’s fundamentalist factions would have the country believe. When corporations were first expanding in the 20th century, social-welfare capitalism was an important factor in their success.

Placed in the hands of ideologues, however, the debate creates rifts in America’s classes and creates a convoluted discussion about industrial relations in contemporary society. Criticisms against unions and social spending were once solely a reaction from the country’s rich, but in recent history these attacks have increasingly stemmed from middle- and working-class Americans. The people that have gained the most from union efforts and are more likely to need the support of social programs, at least once in their lives, have become the system’s loudest critics.

This transition is eroding the populist mindset and undermining communal cohesion as households and small business owners argue amongst themselves over the concepts of fair pay and employer obligations.

With real incomes falling and pensions under assault by business and government alike, the future stability and security of American households remains in doubt.

“For every worker fired, 395 coworkers receive the message: get involved with the union and you’ll get a pink slip…The firing goes far beyond a lost job, vanished income, and workplace injustice for the individual worker…they too could lose their livelihood and economic well-being.” – American Rights at Work

In the recent past, unions represented the strength of the American workforce but the last three decades have witnessed membership rolls collapse. Corporate interests pushing back against organized labor have weakened the worker’s voice in local and national politics and dwindling membership have stagnated wages across the country.

Compensation has remained an important issue throughout the years, but without union leaders at the negotiating table employees compromised away higher wages for stronger retirement benefits. Cost-cutting initiatives implemented in the wake of the global collapse diminished worker pensions, destroying the compensation received for services rendered.

Past decisions agreed upon by politicians and corporate executives – many of whom are no longer in power – forfeited painful reforms as a way to avoid conflict; however, as money becomes tight throughout the country there has been reinvigorated momentum in correcting past agreements to the detriment of workers.

Over the past two years, the United States witnessed mounting state deficits, which have placed balanced budgets and austerity measures at the forefront of state politics. The opportunity was seized upon by Republican governors to further weaken unions and labor laws in the guise of constructing a more effective government.

Instead of directing their attention to reforming existing programs that are needed for America’s long-term stability, they have decided to build political capital by attacking American livelihoods.

The public sector, particularly public sector unions, has been blamed for heightened state deficits and failures in government programs, no matter how ambiguous the circumstances. In some states, such as Ohio, public sector workers have been incorrectly blamed for overcompensation – when compared to private sector employees – even though public sector wages and benefits are, on average, 4% lower than their private sector counterparts. To perpetuate this fallacy would mean comparing the two sectors as if they were equitable and ignoring the fact that the figures derived for the private sector encompasses a larger pool of workers that rely upon minimum wage jobs with less benefit options.

In doing so the American workforce has become the scapegoat for the nation’s ills and has provided elites the smokescreen that affords them the opportunity to ignore the country’s legitimate fiscal issues.

In reality, what creates budget deficits is that governments are not taxing enough, rather then spending too much. Thirty-one states continue to struggle with correcting their budget shortfalls for FY2013; most of which are right-to-work states with anti-union legislatures. If public sector unions are hurting American progress to the degree being espoused by the political Right, then why are states fervently against unionization suffering at an equal rate? Under the logic being put forth, right-to-work states should be better off than their more unionized counterparts.

The assault on worker rights has the potential to destabilize the economy and force the population to engage in a skewed examination of the role of the state. Rhetoric has already convinced some middle- and working-class households that it remains their responsibility to better manage their future, even though the recent economic collapse has more then illustrated the lack of control individuals truly have over their own lives.

The movement to turn short-term fights over budget deficits into a long-term struggle over collective-bargaining and union power is one of, if not the, biggest challenges facing American unions. Reforming the way in which the state functions in regard to its employees is a chance for the political Right to slay the Leviathan.

If legislators fully understood how markets work, they would know that fluidity in private sector capital allows it to be mobile, which leads many corporations to search out stable investment environments and, in turn, draws them toward regions with strong public sectors. Because of this, politicians should be finding ways to strengthen their existing institutions in the hopes of bringing in new capital.

However, if the focus remains on pitting America’s workers against one another then calls for true reform will be tempered and control of the nation will remain in the hands of the over-privileged and substanceless. If public sector workers are successfully demonized with limited recourse American society will struggle for the long-term, the achievement gap will grow ever-wider, and the most capable in society will refuse to consider an occupation in government – draining an already dwindling pool of potential employees.

“It’s not that the adults who head families in poverty don’t earn enough; they don’t work enough.” – Steven Malanga, Manhattan Institute

There has been increasing disinterest in assisting those who have weaker employment prospects. Individuals who struggle financially are not afforded the same opportunities as the rest, but some in society perceive this class as nothing more than entitled and amoral ‘welfare queens.’ Moreover, some even believe that those that struggle for stability in their lives deserve the situation they find themselves in. These flawed perceptions create theories on how this is a consequence of the nation’s social programs, rather than a consequence of poor judgment or being nothing more than an accident of birth.

As the crimes of a few have placed the entire class under a microscope, it illustrates the country’s tendency to become belligerent against the impoverished and those that cannot readily defend themselves. Similar disdain does not hold true for America’s powerful and influential, however. Malfeasances committed by those in the upper-class are deemed one-offs that do not deserve the same scrutiny as those purportedly gaming government programs to their advantage – defending the opulent while vilifying the downtrodden. The country can no longer afford this to continue; the unemployed and underemployed have suffered enough shame and indignity.

Washington needs to properly address the entrenched joblessness endemic in many parts of the country. The most effective way in doing so is investing in worker training programs, as well as financing incentives that would entice businesses to expand and workers to enter academic programs. (The long-term unemployed find that their skills and knowledge become dated, leading businesses to vet potential employees more stringently if they remain outside the workforce for too long.)

Businesses tend to justify discrimination – in pertaining to this specific topic – as their desire to seek out and hire the best and brightest. However, the policies disproportionately affect individuals with on-the-job knowledge but lacking supplemental education; individuals found primarily in minority populations. Decades have passed with limited government or corporate involvement to reverse this trend, so, today, the issue remains invisible for too many of the country’s leaders.

The United States was suffering from a poor employment record leading up to the global financial collapse. Urban areas throughout the country have suffered social and economic consequences as a result. Entrenched joblessness, particularly for men, is a detriment to the nation’s stability. It hinders closing budgetary gaps – less taxes brought in while social programs expanded – social cohesion is eroded, and poverty is passed to future generations. Individuals entering adulthood without a solid employment history or the proper education have a greater chance of suffering from rampant unemployment over the long-term.

“So you can go to college on Pell Grants — maybe I should not be telling anybody this because it’s turning out to be the welfare of the 21st century.” – Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT)

In the 1970s, state governments across the United States covered 70% of student tuition costs through Pell Grants. Since then state investment in academia has drastically decreased, forcing the institutions and student body to shoulder more of the burden. Debt brought on by rising education costs have been considered a financial time-bomb and has led to Congressional debates over interest rates and lending practices.

Education and determination are essential for success in contemporary society, and these characteristics have been expounded upon, at great length, by Representative John Boehner (R-OH). The student loan debate has reinvigorated the self-adulating of Boehner’s struggles with paying his way through college. The story seems to be not only a way in which he can relate to the concerns of the population, but also is a means for him to illustrate his personal desire for success; an insinuation that current students are taking the easy way out by building debt, rather than working.

When comparing the numbers side by side, John Boehner’s financial strain does not compare to the issues faced by America’s contemporary student body. John Boehner began his education at Xavier University in 1970 and Pell Grants from the state government reduced the tuition burden to $38.00 per credit.

With minimum wage at $1.60 per hour, John Boehner had to work 24 hours in order to pay for one credit hour at Xavier University. Fast-forward to today and the student body at Xavier are paying $483.00 per credit. Working the minimum wage at $7.25 per hour it would take today’s student 67 hours to pay for one credit hour. The only way for college students to achieve the same success as John Boehner – toiling 24 hours to pay for one credit hour – the nation’s minimum wage would need to be increased to $20.15 per hour.

“Investing in a community college, just like investing in a new road or a new highway or broadband lines that go into rural communities, these investments are not part of some grand scheme to redistribute wealth.” – President Obama

Finding solutions to the problems plaguing the country’s workforce – to develop more skilled workers – goes beyond merely creating positions, particularly those paying minimum wage. Workers need to acquire the necessary abilities to succeed in the new economy.

Opportunities many relied on in the past, such as in agriculture, are no longer available, and the interest in on-the-job training has been replaced with the demand that individuals must have basic knowledge in place prior to employment.

Investments from Washington in job training and education have occurred since the global economic collapse. This year, the Obama Administration reaffirmed its commitment – as part of the State of the Union – to the American workforce by funding training programs. With $8 billion in the Community College Career Fund and $2 billion allocated in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Washington has been promoting educational advancement in the technology, transportation and medical industries; market sectors with numerous open positions but not enough educated workers to fill them.

Developing programs to assist workers not only allows people to be self-sustaining, but also assists American businesses to find the best employees – preparing people for careers that allow companies to expand. Stagnation in the market stems from a lack of interest in strengthening the workforce, a factor that has slowed the market over the last decade. Reversing this trend can be easily achieved by investing in training people in industry-specific fields rather than general job skills.

Government investments are necessary to keep the economy from failing and insure the workforce does not fall behind. With wages stagnant and growth stalled, it seems the United States has run out of the resources available for easy expansion – keeping in mind that part of the previous growth was achieved through toxic products and relaxed regulations, which eventually destroyed all gains made.

What needs to occur throughout the United States is more innovation. This has been the catalyst for growth for many years and has been led by business ingenuity and backed by public sector finances. The current market environment – increasing demand for skilled workers while unemployment remains at high levels – illustrates the need for smart growth and not simply rapid growth.

Over the past decade, corporations, fearing loss in capital spent on research and development, have produced less original products over the years, instead focusing attention on rehashing existing technology. Repackaging accessible products as “new” affords the developer the opportunity to gain capital, but it does not benefit society as a whole.

Similarly, the current demand for skilled labor is only beneficial to the subset of society that has the professional background and education for the specialized work.

For the rest, the last four years has seen an emphasis on job quantity and not quality, affording governments and businesses the image of being productive without actually being helpful.

“In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward–mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Not a decade has passed without commentators creating a series of analyses outlining what the United States needs to change in order to develop a stable and equitable future. Many have listed what they deem to be the nation’s problems and draw up easy solutions to correct the country’s issues. To many, fixing America is simple.

With time spent and trees felled, many of the proposed political, economic, and societal solutions have been ignored by those in power; an expected reaction from those working in a system designed “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

With perception more important than truth, partisan organizations and institutions have been created to utilize conflict to gain capital, thus preserving power and influence in the hands of the few. Causes – real or imaged – create resources, and finances are used to not only build on existing contentious issues, but also pay executives exorbitant salaries. Resolving societal issues – such as the ones defined as the ‘culture wars’ – would mean an end to political influence and, more importantly, donations.

Knowing this ensures nothing is resolved; leaders need conflict to preserve the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Individuals gain power, influence, and capital by allying themselves with a group – corporations or workers – and as long as they fight for, without completely resolving, their issues they will remain in power. Why would the people controlling the processes want reformation?

Acknowledging that reforms have occurred in the past, there are many remnants of the initial conflict remaining in contemporary society. Equality at the ballot box was supposed to have been resolved with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the recent push for identification laws continues the conflict regarding suppression. Moreover, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 needed to be supplemented by the Lilly Ledbetter Act of 2009.

The wars over equality should have been resolved decades ago, yet conflict remains and justifies the need for money. For as much as the country has moved forward on paper, continued societal conflicts cause the country to rehash resolved arguments rather than tackling the issues that hinder national progress and matter most for American families. While this takes place, the country’s middle- and working-classes are losing.

Shrouded in debt and the illusion of the American Dream, many did not fully appreciate their situation until the financial meltdown. Many in power attempted to turn the anger away from them, blaming the middle-class for the failures of the domestic economy. People have the right to be angry at the system; they were sold the false impression of safety and security – meet certain objectives and prosperity would soon follow – and the expectation of achieving an outcome that became increasingly unobtainable with each passing year.

Before the country can begin rebuilding its image, it must be honest with itself on what needs to be done to move forward. It can ill afford to fall for the scare tactics of authors and gold merchants to comprehend the domestic financial environment, believe Republican rhetoric on trickle-down economics, perceive Washington as working against their best interests, nor defend the wealthy as if they are the victims of a malevolent society. People need to be realistic about the United States and locking themselves into economic and societal theologies will diminish the country’s future capacity to succeed.

The nation needs to begin to look forward, beyond the short-term, and focus on investing in society and not solely corporate interests. Equity in society can only happen when the masses have decided to invest in their own future, and the easiest measure to achieve this is through strengthening wage and benefit standards for American workers. Sadly, easy on paper does not necessarily translate to simplicity in policy – the nation’s lacking pluralist mindset and continued defense of individualism further stalls the legislative process that would make this happen.

The system, as it stands today, is rigged against American households. The ideas that can be used to save the country – short on process as they are – will never be looked upon as legitimate by those with power and influence. Because of this, it is time for the people to strike out against the creed of unearned rewards; Americans need to refrain from painting their neighbors as a plague on the state and turn their attention toward correcting the country’s growing inequality.

What the nation needs for survival is for people to move away from the mindset of ‘me’ and begin to believe in communities and neighborhoods again. Local populations need leaders and policies that strengthen their position in the state; a shift at the state level that can be easily reflected federally. When governments value the solvency of the masses it ensures an economic environment that lays the foundation for continual capitalistic growth and innovation.

Before any substantive policy can be implemented, the country needs to understand the current state of affairs without political opinion makers distorting national issues for their own personal gain. Appreciating the country’s current situation – in the domestic market as well as the upper-, middle-, and working-classes – will lead to a better national dialogue and lead to calls for the right policies, not the most expedient policies.