One nation, underemployed
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.