One nation, underemployed

By Sally Kohn
October 7, 2011

By Sally Kohn
The opinions expressed are her own.

In our national desperation to create jobs, we’ve forgotten that quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality.  For instance, Rick Perry boasts of creating jobs in Texas, but Texas is tied with Mississippi for the highest percentage of minimum wage jobs in the nation.  According to the latest jobs numbers, the United States gained 58,000 jobs in September, with an additional 45,000 communication workers returning to work after a strike.   But as any busboy cleaning up after a Wall Street banker can tell you, not all jobs are created equal.

Of course, the 9.1% of unemployed Americans in our country would gladly take even the worst of jobs to put food on their tables.  But as recent Census data reveals, 46.2 million Americans lived in poverty in 2010 — many of whom have jobs, just not jobs that are good enough. In fact, for all American workers, the Census Bureau found that media household incomes (adjusted for inflation) declined by 2.3% in 2010 over the previous year — even as worker productivity and corporate profits rose.

America needs an economic recovery not just on paper but on principle — where the quality of life for workers rises as the quantity of jobs and our overall economy grows.  Which is why it’s deeply troubling that so many in our government are trying to undermine the quality of current jobs, let alone create more and better jobs for the future.

Union jobs = good jobs

There’s a reason the protesters at Occupy Wall Street are linking arms with unions.  Unions raise wages for all workers.  Studies have shown that a large unionized presence in a given industry raises wages for all workers in that field.  In draconian, anti-union “Right to Work” states, all workers make on average $5,438 less per year than workers in states that allow free bargaining.  Not to mention the fact that many benefits non-unionized workers now expect on the job — from health insurance to sick leave — were first established because unions fought for them and such benefits became the norm.

In the prosperous 1950s, nearly one-in-three American workers belonged to a union.  Today, thanks to attacks on union rights by big business conservatives, closer to one-in-ten workers is a union member. In the intervening decades, data show that as unionization rates have declined, so have middle class wages and income.

Some voters are put off by the political power of unions, understandable in a political system that is more controlled by special interests than ordinary citizens.  But unlike corporations that lobby Washington so they can make more money, unions are advocating for better jobs — to raise your quality of life, increase your pay and benefits and put more money in your pocket.  The conservative case against unions is entirely political.  From an economic perspective, unions are essential to creating good, middle class jobs.

Public sector jobs = good jobs

Big business conservatives have also increased their attack on government jobs and workers.  These critics claim that government is inefficient and wasteful and that the private sector can teach our kids, build our roads and administer our social services in a more cost-effective and competent manner.

But a recent study by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight found that, in 33 out of 35 areas, the government paid more to private contractors then it would have cost for the government to perform the work itself. What’s interesting is that, last year, the conservative Heritage Foundation released a study showing that public sector workers earn on average 22% more than their private sector counterparts, and public workers get more generous benefits packages as well. It turns out that privatizing public services is just a scam to dismantle good public sector jobs while taking your tax dollars and giving them to private companies that drive down wages and benefits for workers while driving up profits and CEO bonuses.

The recent college graduates, soldiers and single mothers protesting on Wall Street and across the country don’t just want crummy jobs — they want good jobs.  President Obama’s plan is a good start in the right direction — a plan that will stimulate the economy and get Americans working again through public sector investment.

Our goal must be an economy not just in which all Americans have jobs but good jobs — so we can provide for our families, send our kids to college, save for retirement and have some money left in our pockets to spend.  Whether they’re out in the streets or crying at their kitchen tables, that’s what all Americans are clamoring for.

Sally Kohn is a political commentator and community organizer.  She is a contributor to the American Prospect and the founder of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots think tank.

54 comments

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Sally! I read your bio. You’ve never held a real job. If your philosophy was enacted, it would create 100% unemployment.

Posted by Handbook | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, American labor rates need to be recalibrated. It will be a painful process. Union or not, our wages are just too high compared to the rest of the world, and American corporations are obviously optimizing profit using overseas manufacturing and labor. To increase the number of jobs, a temporary, say 3-year reduction in the minimum wage to $4.00/hr will help to start to get citizens that are homeless and unemployed-without-benefits back into a job situation, as corporations will be able to hold their profit margins – but – this reduction would need to be coupled with an increase in active re-training programs, a lockdown on unchecked greed by American corporations via the elimination of corporate and capital gains tax loopholes and the restructuring of income tax rates to have everyone (even the top 2%) paying their fair share, as well as an increase in tariffs on imported goods. This would be a formula for re-incentivizing American startups and established corporations to return manufacturing to the homeland, reducing unemployment, starting a trend for higher worker wages over time, and returning the USA to a self-sufficent mode once again. Even better if the new technologies that the re-trained workforce encountered were related to alternative energy generation and distribution. After goals have been met, the minimum wage can be stepped back upwards incrementally as needed.

Posted by roc1 | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, American labor rates need to be recalibrated. It will be a painful process. Union or not, our wages are just too high compared to the rest of the world, and American corporations are obviously optimizing profit using overseas manufacturing and labor. To increase the number of jobs, a temporary, say 3-year reduction in the minimum wage to $4.00/hr will help to start to get citizens that are homeless and unemployed-without-benefits back into a job situation, as corporations will be able to hold their profit margins – but – this reduction would need to be coupled with an increase in active re-training programs, a lockdown on unchecked greed by American corporations via the elimination of corporate and capital gains tax loopholes and the restructuring of income tax rates to have everyone (even the top 2%) paying their fair share, as well as an increase in tariffs on imported goods. This would be a formula for re-incentivizing American startups and established corporations to return manufacturing to the homeland, reducing unemployment, starting a trend for higher worker wages over time, and returning the USA to a self-sufficent mode once again. Even better if the new technologies that the re-trained workforce encountered were related to alternative energy generation and distribution. After goals have been met, the minimum wage can be stepped back upwards incrementally as needed.

Posted by roc1 | Report as abusive

When unions hold companies hostage insisting on higher wages without needing to increase hourly rates of output they are only increasing the cost of union labor.

When unions don’t train their members to learn job skills, when they prevent cross training of their members by theirthe employers, they bring no value to the employer or the economy.

When they pay their leaders handsome salaries and pensions for overseeing their demise…and decline.

Greed is not limited to Wall Street.

Posted by mikeILLINOIS | Report as abusive

First, note that most jobs are poor jobs.

Throughout the world, “good” jobs exist only in powerful, dominating countries that are almost always racially and ethnically homogeneous. They have good jobs because they stick together and because they do not give their advantages away. Neither of these things is true of the USA any more and both are becoming less true weekly.

Second, note that attempts to reduce “poverty” both here and abroad have led to the mass production of college degrees without regard to demand and generally without regard to cost.

The result is that we have exported knowledge and skills to our competitors and have actually imported foreign workers on a completely unprecedented scale. These actions clearly have resulted in harm to the people who were already here.

We have planned a lowering of living standards and executed it on a national scale. It is working. We have set the stage for social and ethnic conflict on a level never seen here. And we shall have it.

Simply hoping for a high wage, “everybody is happy” nirvana economy will not make it happen. Our “vision” of the future is for a society that does not even remotely resemble any human society that has ever existed.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Good article.

Fundamentally I see a lot of our social issues are a result of valuing corporate profits over the betterment of our society and dignity. This was not the capitalistic dream of our founders. This was their biggest enemy – the monarchists controlling their lives.

Why should we be chasing the lowest cost manufacturing worker or worker base globally if it destroys our society? Simply it’s because as a democracy we have no control of our politicians once they are voted in. They are only accountable to themselves and their lobbyists.

We should be viewing a model of self sufficiency where we can produce and consume most of what we need – and export our innovation.

As automation takes away jobs – this should be reason to celebrate and expand our quality of life – instead we’ve created an environment of class warfare and a paranoid sleep deprived work base for the few fortunate able to find work.

This global corporate squeeze on humanity is a living version of the movie Terminator – where global profits are the machine chewing us up worldwide.

We still have a chance to change things – unfortunately those controlling the Terminators are more ambitious and paranoid than human.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

I’m all for reigning in executive pay; if a corporation has a (total executive compensation ration)/(market capitalization) ration in the top 10 percent of the companies in its size class, it should be required to issue a “scarlet letter” statement, explaining that its executives receive more compensation than the norm and why. This would discourage boards from dolling out huge awards to paper pushers who don’t deserve them. I’m not so enthusiastic about unions, however. Unionization worked in the US when the economy had room to grow, pension plans were unregulated as well as underfunded, health costs were low (due to the fact that most of today’s expensive treatments didn’t exist) and (in a market in which most of their competitors were still recovering from WWII) companies could easily pass on the costs of generous settlements to customers both here and abroad. Even then, union workers benefited more at the expense of consumers (other workers)than investors. In today’s more competitive environment, unions are more prone to get their members fired than benefit them; they can also render whole geographical areas “union strongholds”, wastlands which are avoided even by non-union firms. The commercial high-tech firms of the 60s-90s had generous pay scales without much unionization. This would be a better model for future prosperity than the world of Ralf Cramdon.

Posted by PCL1 | Report as abusive

We have a glitch in the U.S. brand of consumer capitalism, I have been concerned for some time when we approached a time when U.S. consumers, because of economic stress, could not spend enough to maintain the capitalist infrastructure. With the pressures against unions, the globalization and automation replacements, the inflation in costs of required insurances, mortgages, and utilities for middle class people and small businesses; There is not enough left to pay everyone. The media bundle is $120 a month, before it was $25 a month for a phone bill, with no cost for ‘cable-TV and internet connection’.
With a population well over 320 million, if 50 to 60% of the population can afford what is required to keep up a fully-realized American home: The individual corporate suppliers of utilities, insurance, food production, and then include governmental services, these production entities can prosper enough as individual ‘corporate citizens’, but the system feels pressure from the growing numbers of underemployed workers who cannot afford all the insurances, the mortgage/rent, the media bill, the food bill, vehicle acquisition, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… That is the economic ‘glitch’ of the U.S. system. And when, in these newly exploited international labour markets, the workers rightly insist on a better lifestyle, their version of worker ‘Bust-Boom-bust’ cycle that the US saw. low wages at beginning of industrialization to higher wages with shared progress to lower wages or even job losses as management seeks lower wages elsewhere…

Posted by wiggy1855 | Report as abusive

The number of private union jobs have plummeted because they have priced themselves out of the market. The number of public union jobs will decline because the people paying for their “good jobs ” are sick of more taxes and paying for benefits that are unsustainable. Someone has to pay the bills. You need to take economics 101 and learn how the real world works

Posted by Stan10785 | Report as abusive

“….where the quality of life for workers rises” What does this mean? More money so Americans can continue to gobble up TV’s, iPods, cell phones, cheap clothes, etc. etc. etc. manufactured by the Chinese? We are partly to blame ourselves. We are the ones who’s bottomless appetite for cheap “stuff” caused an explosion in the Chinese economy. Our appetite for this junk has caused our jobs to go overseas.

Posted by r.felder | Report as abusive

The fundamental spontaneity of the worldwide protests, not just here in the U.S. but everywhere, is indicative that people everywhere are FED UP with special deals, privileges, monopolies, tax avoidance for special classes of people who feel they are, somehow, exempt from rules that apply only to “little” people. In foreign countries these entrenched special interests have manipulated themselves into even greater control of governments than has occurred here.

All of these corporatist machinations are then rationalized with pseudo-patriotic appeals, absurd rationalizations about capitalism with little basis in fact, and media supported nonsense about job creation and opportunities coupled with official “statistics” which are designed to conceal rather than expose the full extent of the problem.

All unions are not without sin, there have indeed been excesses in the past as is the case in every organization, but the outrageous attempts by a small minority of politicians to represent their narrow election victories as a “mandate” to turn back the achievements of over a century of labor laws, often bought at the expense of bloody and even dangerous strikes opposed by company thugs, this represents a complete and obvious misinterpretation regarding voter disgust with the corporatist and special interest controlled congress and a dysfunctional government.

The Occupy Wall Street movement represents no confused goals – its goals, the goal of all of us remains united to end the interregnum of corporatist subversion of our government and restore the representative democracy which is the basis of our socio-political philosophy and heritage.

One of America’s greatest presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, now the subject of misrepresentation and castigation by historically misinformed special interests, called explicitly for an 2d Bill of Rights to address fundamental economic issues. The opposition continues to tout a make believe and non-existent “capitalism” as justification to continue their special deals, monopolies and tax breaks while insulting our intelligence with nonsense about how only this will cause “job creation”.

The full extent of the reforms necessary to wipe away this self righteous subversion of our government is nothing less than the same process which stripped them of their assertions about slave ownership 150 years ago… their “property”. Let us, like Kohn here, explicitly expose the charade to pave the way for real, and long overdue, reforms.

Posted by CitizenJimserac | Report as abusive

Definition: A Recession is when your neighbor’s house is foreclosed on. A Depression is when your house is foreclosed on. It’s hard to focus on business bankruptcy when there is so much personal bankruptcy everywhere. No more Obama bail out’s! If a company cannot keep up with the times then let ‘em fail. That’s the American way!

Posted by Burgerness | Report as abusive

This article seems extremely biased and narrow-minded to me.

First of all, “union jobs = good jobs” is hogwash. The only “good” aspect of those jobs is short-term, for the selfish interests of the individual. Unions foster corruption and laziness, and discourage excellence. This is a huge part of why American products from union shops became non-competitive in the world marketplace. Unions extorted higher wages and better benefits, thus forcing higher prices. Our steel industry was completely destroyed by unions.

Another gross distortion:
“Public sector jobs = good jobs”

Public sector jobs simply drain the working cleass of money. Those public sector jobs do not create tangible products to sell in the world marketplace, thus bring in no revenue. In conjunction with unions, again extorting excessive wages and benefits at the expense of taxpayers, the unfunded liabilities of pensions for public sector employees will bankrupt the nation. We are pushing near 100 TRILLION dollars in unfunded liabilities. Where is that money to come from???

The problem with jobs:

America lost millions of high salary jobs, especially in the high tech sectors. Those jobs paid GOOD money (all without the need for unions), and those employees were in the upper tax brackets. Those employees also had large amounts of money to invest, and large amounts of disposable income to SPEND, which helps build local economies. Those already-taxed dollars go into the local economies, to be taxed again, so local, state and federal tax revenues are increased. The current administration seems to think “shovel ready” jobs will magically cure our ecomonic problems, but they will not. Partly because those jobs are all very low-paying jobs, and partly because the cost of lawsuits from far-left environmentalists who try to block virtually every construction project will kill any benefit from the few jobs actually created. Locally we had the opportunity for over 2,000 “shovel ready” jobs from the stimulus, but not one came to fruition. Each project has been blocked by far-left environmental extremists.

It has become clear that the current administration is as much pro-corporate as any other administration ever was. They continue to make life easy for the already rich, while their policies are virtually destroying the middle class. While the administration has been aggressively attacking small farms, health food stores, and Gibson Guitars, there have been ZERO prosecutions of the corrupt bankers who were a significant factor for the economic disaster we are facing. The administration continues to support unions which continue to cause economic harm; especially public sector unions.

America needs a complete change in Congress, on both sides of the aisle. The current Congress is the most corrupt in the history of America, and are doing the will of Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry and the oil industry. They are become RICH beyond rich, while America suffers. Unfortunately, so many people are brainwashed by organizations calling themselves a “grassroots think tank”, which are in fact simply a tool used by the ultra liberal far-left extremists who are so arrogant they believe THEIR way is the ONLY way.

Posted by Active0ldLady | Report as abusive

This article seems extremely biased and narrow-minded to me.

First of all, “union jobs = good jobs” is hogwash. The only “good” aspect of those jobs is short-term, for the selfish interests of the individual. Unions foster corruption and laziness, and discourage excellence. This is a huge part of why American products from union shops became non-competitive in the world marketplace. Unions extorted higher wages and better benefits, thus forcing higher prices. Our steel industry was completely destroyed by unions.

Another gross distortion:
“Public sector jobs = good jobs”

Public sector jobs simply drain the working cleass of money. Those public sector jobs do not create tangible products to sell in the world marketplace, thus bring in no revenue. In conjunction with unions, again extorting excessive wages and benefits at the expense of taxpayers, the unfunded liabilities of pensions for public sector employees will bankrupt the nation. We are pushing near 100 TRILLION dollars in unfunded liabilities. Where is that money to come from???

The problem with jobs:

America lost millions of high salary jobs, especially in the high tech sectors. Those jobs paid GOOD money (all without the need for unions), and those employees were in the upper tax brackets. Those employees also had large amounts of money to invest, and large amounts of disposable income to SPEND, which helps build local economies. Those already-taxed dollars go into the local economies, to be taxed again, so local, state and federal tax revenues are increased. The current administration seems to think “shovel ready” jobs will magically cure our ecomonic problems, but they will not. Partly because those jobs are all very low-paying jobs, and partly because the cost of lawsuits from far-left environmentalists who try to block virtually every construction project will kill any benefit from the few jobs actually created. Locally we had the opportunity for over 2,000 “shovel ready” jobs from the stimulus, but not one came to fruition. Each project has been blocked by far-left environmental extremists.

It has become clear that the current administration is as much pro-corporate as any other administration ever was. They continue to make life easy for the already rich, while their policies are virtually destroying the middle class. While the administration has been aggressively attacking small farms, health food stores, and Gibson Guitars, there have been ZERO prosecutions of the corrupt bankers who were a significant factor for the economic disaster we are facing. The administration continues to support unions which continue to cause economic harm; especially public sector unions.

America needs a complete change in Congress, on both sides of the aisle. The current Congress is the most corrupt in the history of America, and are doing the will of Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry and the oil industry. They are become RICH beyond rich, while America suffers. Unfortunately, so many people are brainwashed by organizations calling themselves a “grassroots think tank”, which are in fact simply a tool used by the ultra liberal far-left extremists who are so arrogant they believe THEIR way is the ONLY way.

Posted by Active0ldLady | Report as abusive