By Andrew Khitsun
A few months ago we had another wage increase. This stands in stark contrast with the population at large – increasingly union-less and without any rights at work. The wages are shrinking, and benefits disappearing. All the while the unions are demonized by the powers that be – whether corporations, extremist politicians or TV talking heads.
Today, I want to remind you how, as a part of the American Dream, unions helped to shore up the wages for workers at the very bottom of the pay scale.
The history of Minimum Wage and Living Wage are intertwined and inseparable. The first known wage regulation was actually not a minimum wage but a maximum (ceiling) wage instituted in Medieval Europe, when the Black Plague severely decimated the population, and labor came at very high price, so laws were passed establishing penalties for paying above set rates.
In the following centuries, there were attempts to tie the wages to the price of food (since iPhones didn’t exist, food was considered the one and only necessity), basically establishing a living wage. Various countries instituted different ceilings and bottom wages through the centuries, until the arrival of capitalism, which caused the repeal of most of the existing laws and an essential “free for all” when it comes to paying for labor.
Naturally, pay was minuscule and working conditions terrible. This started to change in the second part of the 19th century, with the rise of unions and the appearance on the scene of “collective agreements” that unions negotiated with employers. Their wages set the pace for other, similar but non-unionized companies, to raise wages too in order to attract the best talent (and to prevent their workers from unionizing: the argument “why do you need a Union when I am paying you well?” is still being used today.)
The minimum wage movement was trying to address then-common sweatshops, where workers (usually women and children) were paid substandard wages.
The first legislative attempts to establish a minimum wage are attributed to New Zealand and Australia back in the 1890s. On the other hand, some countries in the developed world (for example Sweden or Denmark) don’t have a minimum wage to this day, relying exclusively on unions to set the salary plank through collective bargaining.
Early attempts by labor unions in America to create a mandatory minimum wage were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that they “restricted the worker’s right to set the price for his own labor.” This allowed employers to continue exploiting their workers through the Great Depression of the 1930s, when incredible demand for jobs caused wages to drop even further to an all-time low. With poverty becoming a huge national issue, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to constitutionally protect American workers as a key part of his 1936 re-election campaign. He won by a landslide.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a federal minimum wage to serve as “a floor below wages,” to reduce poverty and to ensure that people at least could buy the bare necessities while working and producing wealth for others.
Today, minimum wage is far below its historical level and loses value every year due to inflation. In fact, if the federal minimum wage kept up with inflation it would be $10.75 an hour, not the $7.25 it is today. By another measure, if minimum wage had kept pace with workers’ productivity since 1968, the inflation-adjusted minimum wage would be $18.67.
Some of the first Living Wage campaigns in the United States were launched in the 1990s, addressing the issue of minimum wage having fallen too far behind the actual living costs, resulting in increasing poverty among the population.
Unions were joined in these endeavors by student groups, community coalitions and other progressive organizations. Living Wage campaigns flared up in places like New York City (one of the most expensive cities in the world), Harvard University, Miami University (driven by AFSCME and the Miami University Fair labor Coalition), John Hopkins University (organized by SLAC – Student Labor Action Committee), Swarthmore College (Living Wage and Democracy Campaign), and the University of Virginia.
The movement is continuing now, with fast food workers – some of the lowest paid workers in America – joining the fray with “Fight for $15” and “15 Now” campaigns.
While many letter carriers in big cities (like New York) qualified for food stamps before 1970, we’ve come a long way since then – all because we have the NALC.
Andrew Khitsun is President of Capital City Merged Branch 507, National Association of Letter Carriers.
Fitchburg City Council
• City Council District 1, Seat 1: Dorothy Krause (I)
• City Council District 1, Seat 2: Michael Childers
• City Council District 2, Seat 4: Patrick Stern (I)
Madison Mayor: Paul Soglin (I)
Madison Common Council
• Common Council District 1: Matt Brink
• Common Council District 2: Ledell Zellers (I)
• Common Council District 3: Amanda M.-M. Hall
• Common Council District 4: Michael Verveer (I)
• Common Council District 5: Shiva Bidar-Sielaff (I)
• Common Council District 6: Marsha Rummel (I)
• Common Council District 7: Steve King (I)
• Common Council District 8: Zach Wood
• Common Council District 9: Paul Skidmore (I)
• Common Council District 11: Chris Schmidt (I)
• Common Council District 12: Larry Palm (I)
• Common Council District 14: John R. Strasser (I)
• Common Council District 17: Joe Clausius (I)
• Common Council District 18: Rebecca Kemble
• Common Council District 19: Mark Clear (I)
• Common Council District 20: Matt Phair (I)
Stoughton City Council
• District 2: Michael Engelberger (I)
• District 3: Regina Hirsch (I)
Sun Prairie City Council
• City Council District 2: Bill Connors
• City Council District 2 (1 year term): Diane McGinnis
• City Council District 3: Michael Jacobs
• City Council District 4: Al Guyant (I)
Verona City Council
• City Council District 1: Elizabeth Doyle (I)
• City Council District 2: Dale Yurs (I)
• City Council District 3: Luke Diaz (I)
• City Council District 4: Heather Reekie (I)
Madison Municipal School Board
• Seat 1: AnnaMarie Moffit
Middleton Cross Plains School Board
• Area IV: Todd Smith
• Area V: Ann Bauer (I)
Monona Grove School Board (3 at-large seats)
• Keri Robbins
• Jeff Simpson (I)
• Jenifer Smith
Oregon School Board
• Area I: Marilyn S. McDole
Stoughton School Board (3 at-large seats)
• Alison Sorg
Sun Prairie School Board (3 at-large seats)
• Marta Hansen
• Mike Krachey (I)
• Marilyn Ruffin
Wisconsin Heights School Board (3 at-large seats)
• James Schroeder
• Madison Metropolitan School District Building Referendum (Vote Yes)
Columbia & Dodge County
Fall River School Board (2 at-large seats)
• Jason Freedman
• Phyllis Foulkes
• Sue Johnsrud
Beaver Dam Common Council
• District 3: John S. Abfall
Juneau City Council
• District 3: Ron Drezdon (I)
Mayville City Council
• District 5: Robert Boelk Jr. (I)
Horicon School Board
• Town of Burnett, 2 Year Term: Nathan Hodgson
• Town of Hubbard/Town of Oak Grove: James Ketchem (I)
Lomira School Board (2 available seats)
• Zone 3: Stephen D. Jones (I)
• Mayville School District Question 1, Building Referendum (Vote Yes)
• Randolph School District Building Referendum (Vote Yes)
Monroe City Council
• District 8: Dustan Beutel
Monticello Village Board (3 at-large seats)
• Trustee: Greg Bettin
Monroe School Board (3 at-large seats)
• Nicole Saugstad
Fort Atkinson City Council (At-large seat)
• Mason T. Becker
Jefferson City Council (At-large seat)
• Peg M. Beyer
Cambridge School Board (2 at-large seats)
• Margaret Sullivan (I)
• Tomas E. Wright
Fort Atkinson School Board (2 at-large seats)
• At-Large: Cynthia Harrington-Ficenec
• At-Large: Kim Patrick
Jefferson School Board
• Area IV: Terri Wenkman (I)
Lake Mills School Board (2 at-large seats)
• Donna D. Thomas (I)
• Rachel Roglitz-Davies
Whitewater School Board (2 at-large seats)
• Kelly Davis
Westfield School Board
• Representing Coloma, Colburn, Richfield, Richford: Oscar Miller
• Representing Crystal Lake, Newton: Karen Alexander
• Montello School District: Vote Yes
Richland Center City Council
• District 2: Lisa Miller
• District 3: Marsha Machotka (I)
• District 4, 2-year term: Bill Kloehn
Reedsburg School Board
• Beth Voigt
• Sauk County Referendum on Weston School District: Vote Yes
We are not alone in this fight. Our allies in the community, from small businesses to contractors to faith leaders, have stood with us as we oppose this dangerous and unnecessary legislation and the undemocratic process that’s being used to fast-track it through the Legislature.
Over the past week, workers and friends of workers have packed the Capitol hearing rooms, the rotunda, and the sidewalk outside. We have had conversations with our neighbors, we have testified to our legislators, and we have made our voices heard in overwhelming numbers.
This week, join our coalition as we stand up for all workers. Make your voice heard at a committee hearing, at a rally, or on the phone.
Testify at the Assembly Committee on Labor Hearing
Monday, March 2
Until 8 PM
Capitol, Room 417 North (GAR Hall)
Phone Banking Against RTW
Monday, March 2, Until 7 PM
Tuesday, March 3, 12 PM – 6 PM
Wednesday, March 4, 12 PM – 6 PM
Thursday, March 5, 10 AM – 11:30 AM
Madison Labor Temple, Room 212 (1602 S. Park St.)
Capitol Rally and Assembly Floor Session
Thursday, March 5
State Street side of the Capitol Building
Following the rally, please stay to pack the gallery during the Assembly Floor Session beginning at 1 PM.
The struggle for workers’ rights has been a centuries-long battle. No matter the outcome of the Assembly’s vote, we must always be vigilant and ready to raise our voices, organize our fellow workers & community, and act against those who seek to push us down.
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Next legislative session elected leaders in Wisconsin should come together to focus on jobs and the economy. We don’t need another divisive attack on workers’ rights. It is time to put aside the partisan politics and get to work on fixing our economy.
So called right-to-work (RTW) legislation would be a distraction from the real issues impacting Wisconsin families. Often called right to work for less, these bills are designed to crush the very soul of unions by crippling solidarity among working people.
The case against RTW rests on fundamental principles of economics and fairness. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Census Bureau show that workers in RTW states have lower wages, higher rates of poverty, less access to health care and poorer education for children. The average full-time, full-year worker in RTW states makes about $1,500 less than a similar worker in a non-RTW state.
This has implications for everyone. Despite rhetoric about the wealthy being job creators, we know jobs are actually created by middle class demand for goods and services. When wages are depressed by RTW laws, consumer demand goes down, taking employment opportunities with it.
RTW legislation is part of a national attack on the American Dream and democracy funded by power hungry CEOs and influential corporate interests. It allows for the government to interfere in the relationship between a private employer and its employees.
While supporters claim that RTW laws promote job growth, studies show a different picture. Oklahoma adopted a RTW law 10 years ago after supporters claimed it would stimulate employment. According to the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce, the number of new companies coming into the state has instead decreased by one-third since RTW was enacted. Closer to home in Indiana, where Gov. Daniels signed RTW legislation last February, officials have yet to identify a single company that relocated to that state because of RTW. In fact, Indiana continues to lose jobs to free bargaining states like Ohio, Illinois and California.
Let’s get the facts straight. No worker is ever forced to join a union. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled long ago that no one can be forced to join a union or pay fees not directly related to the cost of bargaining a contract. RTW laws encourage people to get something for free that others pay for – it’s called freeloading. These measures give workers the unjust opportunity to reap the benefits of collective bargaining grievance procedures, apprenticeship training programs, affordable health care, a good wage – without contributing their fair share to the cost of negotiation. This is unfair and un-American.
RTW simply redistributes income from workers to owners. At a time when corporations are enjoying record profits while workers’ wages remain flat, right-to-work is exactly the wrong way to go. The middle class has lost ground economically and income inequality is greater now than at any time since the 1920s. If we want a thriving economy we need to strengthen workers’ ability to collectively bargain, not weaken it.
Now more than ever, Wisconsinites across the political spectrum need to be unified in our efforts to create good jobs and restore prosperity for all. The RTW road is a dead-end for Wisconsin’s working families. (from AFL-CIO)
(December 2014 Union Labor News)
“The University has money for building expansion, more deans, new facilities–but not workers.”
That’s the message about 150 workers from four union locals brought on a Halloween march to the UW Chancellor’s office.
What brought them to this point?
A typical Wisconsin state employee has had a 22% wage cut in the past six years.
More than 400 UW classified staff do not make the City of Madison living wage, and over 900 make under $15 an hour.
Graduate students’ fees have increased 98% since 2003 and health care costs have almost tripled in the past three years. As a result, graduate student workers’ take home pay has decreased 14.4% in the last decade.
A UW-Madison graduate student worker at the minimum appointment level makes $9,830. The poverty threshold is $11,490.
The average student worker at UW-Madison would have to work more than 37 hours per week at the current wages to pay for the cost of tuition.
On average, an adjunct teaching the same number of courses as a tenure track professor makes less than $20,000 per year.
Barb Peters, President of AFSCME 171, said that campus workers are slipping out of the middle class.
It’s time to invest in workers on campus.
The rally was sponsored by the TAA (AFT 3220), AFSCME 171, UFAS (AFT 223) and the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC).
(December 2014 Union Labor News)
Nearby Illinois has a long and legendary history of political corruption. They also have a tradition of locking up corrupt leaders. Of Illinois’ last seven governors, four have gone to prison. There’s Rod Blagojevich who infamously tried to sell Barack Obama’s old Senate Seat. George Ryan was convicted of racketeering and sent up the river for six and a half years. Dan Walker did time for bank fraud. Otto Kerner was sentenced to three years for bribery.
There are increasing indications that Wisconsin, which had no such tradition of corruption throughout most of its history, has adopted Illinois’ political ethic but has misplaced the cleansing mechanism of prison for the abusers.
There’s the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), chaired by Wisconsin’s current governor, which has lost track of millions of dollars of taxpayer money and channeled the lion’s share of investment money to his political contributors.
There’s dark money coming into the system, as evidenced by the $700,000 political contribution by mining interests just before they were allowed to write their own rules.
There’s the million dollars in insurance industry political contributions that appear to have influenced the state’s irrational decision to reject Medicare money.
There’s a state Supreme Court with justices who see no problem with making decisions featuring litigants on one side who have given them millions of dollars in campaign contributions.
Wisconsin justice didn’t always turn a blind eye toward corruption. It was nine years ago this month that former state Senate leader, Chuck Chvala, was sent to jail for nine months after pleading guilty to misconduct in public office and making an illegal campaign contribution. A few weeks before that, State Senator Brian Burke was given six months in jail for using his office to campaign for Attorney General. Both were Democrats. So was Senator Gary George, who lost his Senate seat in 2003 and was later convicted of taking kickbacks.
In May 2006, Judge Steven Ebert sentenced Chvala’s Republican counterpart, Representative Scott Jensen, to 15 months in prison. “You used your power and your influence to run an illegal campaign funding operation,” said Ebert at the time. An Appeals Court overturned the conviction on a technicality, and with the help of the current Wisconsin Supreme Court, a change in state law allowed Jensen to move the venue from Dane County to a friendlier Waukesha County.
Four years ago this month, the Waukesha County District Attorney reached a plea agreement with Jensen. Unlike the democrats Jensen ended up with zero jail time. The lenient DA in that case was Brad Schimel. He has just been elected Attorney General for the state of Wisconsin.
Now we have Assembly Speaker Robin Vos telling Marc Lasry, owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, that giving money to Democrats could harm his chances of getting state support for a new arena.
One Wisconsin Now has asked for a criminal investigation of Vos’s remarks. Current state law prohibits public officials from promising to give or withhold official action based on campaign contributions or support. It’s a good law. Now let’s enforce it.
(December 2014 Union Labor News)