I see every day as Labor Day on this blog, and didn’t really have any new material to add, but Matt slagged me for only posting about the state liquor store hours today so I’ll offer some thoughts on how I see the state of economic politics.
You all know that I care a great deal about the issue of real wages and the cost of living. I support a higher statutory minimum wage, and I also have a policy agenda – A Week’s Pay for a Month’s Rent– that I think would be a huge boost to the disposable income of workers in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. The benefits of bringing combined housing and transportation costs down to around 40% of Area Median Income would be far broader and more consequential for these workers than anything I usually see labor liberals endorse.
While I am a huge fan of the legacy accomplishments of the American labor movement, and see unions as a critical countervailing force to business interests in American politics, I am frustrated at the outsized emphasis by so many liberal activists on mass unionization as a strategy to secure higher wages for the lower half of the income distribution. The return of many bad protectionist ideas to the liberal discourse during the Great Recession has also rankled. Too many conversations between politically-engaged liberals seem to start and end with “well, if only we could unionize more companies” and I do not see nearly enough labor-affiliated activists thinking very hard about cost of living issues.
Nominal wages certainly matter a lot, but it matters even more how far those dollars stretch. For instance, highly populated metro areas have higher food service wages than less populated areas, but the higher costs of housing and transportation tend to eat up those higher wages, especially in the northeastern US. Where are unions on those issues?
Or some Philly union members have taken to disparaging Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter as “Mayor Bike Lane,” but obviously making the city more convenient to traverse on a very low-cost mode of transportation helps way more low-income people than a somewhat more generous contract for municipal workers.
I find it difficult to get exercised about many of these fights, when the number of people impacted is so small, and the benefits to the broader population so unclear. My preference is to look toward organizations like LAANE as the future of labor activism, because they organize around citywide issues like local living wages, paid sick days, community benefit agreements and other broad-based benefits that help all residents, not just narrow groups of workers at individual companies.