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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You don’t get it. This is a global economy.

Union Jobs = Future outsourced jobs, or a job that will no longer exist once the company goes out of business due to being unable to compete in the global economy.

Public Sector Jobs = Government budgets that are in the red and have to cut jobs. They are paid for by the taxpayer, what will we do when no more taxpayers exist?

Posted by UnPartisan | Report as abusive

marusik, our tax structure certainly suggests we favor capital over labor.

Posted by PCScipio | Report as abusive

Thank You for stating the obvious that so many articles avoid. Good Jobs, Not minimum wage jobs, are what’s important…I am feeling the pain of US corporations taking advantage of the unemployed and offering even Temporary Jobs at ridiculously low rates/hour…

Posted by ineeditbad | Report as abusive

The purchasing power of my wages almoat doubled between 1983 and 1987. Since 1987 and when I retired this year, it had not improved. This was despite nearly twice the dollars in the wages I got. It seems to me that everyone, union or not, got hit with this and everyone, union or not, needs some hope that a career can end with a more valuable wage at its end than at its start.

Posted by RET_SFC | Report as abusive

Corporations must DIE after a life span of 50 years

What would happen; with the life extending technology that is almost on us; if Warren Buffett lived for a couple HUNDRED years. He would own everything. Like never restarting a Monopoly game. New players don’t have a chance. Corporations must DIE; with 1% accruing to the People each year. At the end of that lifetime; sell it off lock stock and barrel; extinguishing copyrights and patents. Otherwise we will forever be enslaved by these mega monsters

The public would be better served if we never voted for the same candidate twice, EVER. That way only the exceptional would ever be re-elected..

CCFOGTV Citizens Coalition For Open Government Through Video

Posted by bloggerswamp | Report as abusive

The problem with Corporate America is how much is enough? Lets look at the oil industry, how much money do they need? When is billions and billions in profits enough? What ever happened to helping the workers who made the corporations worth billions? Where is the loyalty? I respect a self made corporation and yes the top does deserve a great living, but what about the working people?

Serious questions that need answers. Perhaps Congress can answer these concerns. Everyone needs a fair wage to survive.

Posted by cheeze | Report as abusive

Public sector jobs are great because average benefits are about 1.5 to 2 times that of the private sector that supports them. Problem is, these premium benefits promised by politicians for union votes has bankrupted governments and is crushing taxpayers. That’s why the these benefits are being taken away and the politicians who support them will be out of a job soon.

Posted by actnow | Report as abusive

A beautifully written article Ms.Sally kohn! We did not get here overnight however. I might suggest that unions, are not always necessary if you have a leader with good morals that can look beyond the paycheck. But, with Capitalism as our mantra, and such weak, greedy, and untrustworthy souls we continue to create in this country, people feel as betrayed as ever and for good reasons. The average workers paychecks continue to shrink, while the majority of CEO’S paychecks have grown ever-larger. Three million has now become five or six million a year for top brass, while the educated Joe who still pays for his college loan ten years later and lives in a suburban middle class neiborhood is overworked, and sold the “you can have it too” line of BS. All the while the equity in his home has evaporated, and after years of hard work, he’s forced to pay more to keep benefits, or just outright can’t afford insurance becuase one his children has a pre-existing condition. Everything costs more today whether it’s candy bars and ice cream, or houses and college, and for someone who doesn’t come from a family of money, the odds are against you that you’ll succeed in life. Actually, your chances of being harvested for jail or prison (another private run industry, who’s stock trades on wall street)are much greater than what one might think. We didn’t just mistakenly become the worlds leading jailer by mistake. It’s all part of the master plan the conservative, and morally righteous leaders laid out for folks who might make a mistake somewhere in life, and trust me, we all make’em, so chances are pretty good they’ve legislated a cell just for you. And the neighbor’s boy who decided not to go to college, landed a sweet job busting kids that smoke pot (the real criminals) and he get’s a company car, a huge ego and self-worth and a sweet benefit package. He even get’s to retire earlier than the rest of us with a full pension and benefits, isn’t that somethin! All courtesy of me, you, and everybody else who voted for a dysfunctional government that belongs to special interests. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s the way it’s been for as long as i can remember, and i don’t see it changing until people realize how much of their taxpayer dollars are spent on BS, and demand a change in everything! I live in a little town but almost %50 of my tax dollars go to “public safety”, which is just a catch all phrase for police, courts, prosecutors, judges, etc. It’s a massive system that needs us more than we need them 99% of the time. Nobody wants to talk about this black hole that just continues to eat up my tax dollars, while my streets crumble, and year after year, all we get is a patchjob. No bike trails on the roads, and the athletic fields for the kids look like Iraq. Trust me, nobody’s gonna go pro playing on baron, arid dirt. Yet we’ll spend $30000 dollars in a heartbeat to send the neighbor kid to jail, give hime a criminal record, and force him to change his mind that “pot is bad” even though his grades are better then the guy that put him there. What’s wrong with this picture? and when can we get someone who is an independent thinker that is fair, honest, and put’s society as a whole before another yacht?

Posted by schmetterling | Report as abusive

It takes fewer workers, FOR EVERYTHING……to make or do anything.

The number of workers, employed to do anything will decline in relation to the population of the planet…..that’s ‘productivity’.

What was Foxconn’s solution to it’s worker-suicide problem? Find ways to AUTOMATE the jobs.

As long as your purchasing power is tied to employment (or subcontracting), you will see a decline in what you can afford.

Now, if you can afford to invest, in capital improvements, and productivity enhancements……..you’ve got a chance.

But remember…….if your customers are ‘employees’, they are getting poorer every day. Labor is a commodity, that declines in value as the population increases. supply and demand.

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

Africa? hmm, Africa is not about poverty… it is about misery… how the birthplace of humanity is still a jungle were people live near the wild animals, fighting for feed a mere sub existence… sometimes turning into a violent zoo with the powerfull trying to control and exploit the mass, usurp the precarious goverment systems at their favour until all becomes anarchy… and by trading their resources and the work of their people for some cheap manufactured goods… and famine affects more than 1.5 Billion people…
Thats is not an excuse to say: “see, you are poor, but you should thank us… you could be like people in Africa”… because poverty is just one step close to misery… when the middle class becomes poor… the poor class becomes misery… If one poor family faces foreclosure, mom and dad are unemployed and their debt is bigger than all their possessions… is that poverty, or misery already?
“But they still have a car!”… ofc! Do you see where the constructors build their financed home? in a suburb +50-100 kilometers from downtown, with no public transportation… either you have a car or you are in the jungle there…
I dont believe in socialism or comunism. For me they corrupted themselves into a disguised form of capitalism long time ago…
I believe in corrupted politicians and private managers… because the global situation can only be achieved by a general wide spread corruption in the political and economical system… i dont believe in many unions for the same reason … many corrupted themselves into something like mafia…
If a gov now pays a contractor more for the same job that public workers did in the past… this is just an example of missmanagement driven by corruption of politicians and private managers… and people corrupted by power and money are everywhere…

Posted by VonHell | Report as abusive

Good points made, Sally.
Call me socialist, but studies from the Federal Reserve showed as of March 30, 2010, the total income of the population of the US was 54.6 trillion dollars. With the top 1% owning 40%, the top 5% owning 67%, and the bottom 95% having 33%; in real money that’s $21.84 trillion going to 3.1 million folks, $36.85 trillion going to 15.5 million folks, and $18.01 trillion going to 294.5 million folks.
But(and here I’m a socialist), if that same $54.6 trillion was divided among the total population of 310 million folks, every man, woman, child and baby, would get $176,130 dollars……EACH!!! I know some are going to say that some of us didn’t work hard enough and earn that money, that the truly successful top 5% deserved to keep what they make. Bollocks!!! Nobody and I mean nobody deserves more than a million dollars to live on, yet the top 400 average $37 million each, and gained mostly not from actual work, but from investments, capital gains for which taxes are at the lowest point ever.
Someone, say a brickmason who works hard everyday doing backbreaking physical work will never be rich, yet where is his reward for his success at building walls and buildings for decades? Isn’t his efforts worthy of reward? Yet the privileged investor class is getting all the breaks as it is today.
When did companies decide to have an accounting sheet that put labor as an expense rather than an asset? I’m no economist, but without the fruits of labor, no CEO, manager, customer, consumer, or citizen could have anything with out the workers.
Some TprtyRethugnuts like to say, hey, I’ve never been hired by a poor person….sure you have, every worker who makes the rich successful off of their labor gives you your job, not just the one in charge that says, you’re hired.

Posted by Ray984954 | Report as abusive

capitalism has destroyed America’s success. Wars and the war machinery which thrives on wars makes money for those who are invested in these areas. Then you have the stock market with its programmed trading which allows people with lots of money to make huge sums of money at lightening speed. The end result is those who toil by working for capitalists suffer due to disproportionately high taxes while hedge fund managers and nonprofit chiefs make huge amounts of money and pay less in taxes. Then you have the democrats and Republicans talk the talk but both don’t walk the walk; well Dems do very little more than the Repubs.At the end of the day a global economy makes way to send jobs overseas and make more profits for the capitalists and at the same time kills unionised and nonunionised jobs in the states thus making it a poorer country with less people earning a decent wage and more going into poverty. We may thank the Bush era for this sordid state of affairs.

Posted by loiters21 | Report as abusive

capitalism has destroyed America’s success. Wars and the war machinery which thrives on wars makes money for those who are invested in these areas. Then you have the stock market with its programmed trading which allows people with lots of money to make huge sums of money at lightening speed. The end result is those who toil by working for capitalists suffer due to disproportionately high taxes while hedge fund managers and nonprofit chiefs make huge amounts of money and pay less in taxes. Then you have the democrats and Republicans talk the talk but both don’t walk the walk; well Dems do very little more than the Repubs.At the end of the day a global economy makes way to send jobs overseas and make more profits for the capitalists and at the same time kills unionised and nonunionised jobs in the states thus making it a poorer country with less people earning a decent wage and more going into poverty. We may thank the Bush era for this sordid state of affairs.

Posted by loiters21 | Report as abusive

capitalism has destroyed America’s success. Wars and the war machinery which thrives on wars makes money for those who are invested in these areas. Then you have the stock market with its programmed trading which allows people with lots of money to make huge sums of money at lightening speed. The end result is those who toil by working for capitalists suffer due to disproportionately high taxes while hedge fund managers and nonprofit chiefs make huge amounts of money and pay less in taxes. Then you have the democrats and Republicans talk the talk but both don’t walk the walk; well Dems do very little more than the Repubs.At the end of the day a global economy makes way to send jobs overseas and make more profits for the capitalists and at the same time kills unionised and nonunionised jobs in the states thus making it a poorer country with less people earning a decent wage and more going into poverty. We may thank the Bush era for this sordid state of affairs.

Posted by loiters21 | Report as abusive

One issue always puzzles me: the future of employment. With automation taking over everything from making cars to sharedealing to harvesting cereals, the amount of work available for humans is dwindling fast. Soon the designers of robots and software will be the last bastion of human travail. So, how will this dwindling supply of work be shared? Or will some other system for keeping cash flowing be introduced?

Posted by Aran | Report as abusive

I’m one of the tiny fraction (90.9%) of americans who are still working, and I’m lucky, and grateful to God, who has blessed me. The government can’t help the unemployed, their programs tend to prolong unemployment and discourage hiring. They need to get out of the way, restore confidence that capitalism will remain the economic engine that it always has been, and then the economy will turn around. With our leaders talking the social jsutice nonsense (everybody should be poor so life will be “fair”), no one with any sense is going to take a risk or make an expansionary move for fear of being robbed by the Obamites.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Is this Reuters Red Star???? Seriously…….why don’t they just come out and say they support the OSW movement along with MSN and NBC?? Grassroots my butt!!

As they keep brainwashing the Lemmings where do you think this is headed….Claims of Class Warfare, Social Justice and Fairness in Society…..Look further down the road if you dare….see the violence…I do…Tick Tock

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

Democracy > capitalism

When an economic system no longer serves the greater good, its time for the people to stand up and change it.

At this point in time, Multinational Corporations are attempting to finalize their hold on government and both political parties. Now is the time to fight back.

There will always be some intellectual midgets who cry “its a good thing for multinationals to rule us” but those are the same folks who said “God appointed King George to rule the colonies”. They, and their ilk, should be dismissed from society and given their own island.

Posted by LordCavendish | Report as abusive

So, given all these positive aspects of unions, why have they so significantly declined?

Are there some negative aspects of unions that you’ve declined to mention? Have some of the demands for increased wages and benefits pushed them into an unsustainable, unfunded realm?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Lord Cavendish:
It’s time for you to accept that the class war has already been decided. The wealthy are in complete control and doing very well during this depression. Isn’t it obvious?

Cain is right. Stop complaining, get a job and make yourself rich.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive