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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dionne: How to Empower Workers Without Extensive Government Intervention

In his Labor Day column in the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne, Jr. noted a very disturbing milestone, which cries out for action:

…New York Times labor writer Steve Greenhouse has noted, until 1975, “wages nearly always accounted for more than 50 percent of our nation’s GDP.” But in 2012 they fell to a record low of 43.5 percent. Those who make the economic engine run are receiving less of what they produce. And it’s not because employees aren’t working harder, or smarter. From 1973 to 2011, according to the Economic Policy Institute, employee productivity grew by 80.4 percent while median hourly compensation after inflation grew by just 10.7 percent.

Dionne goes on to cite an encouraging protest, which addresses the issue and may open up a new path of action for the labor movement:

Thursday’s one-day strike of fast-food workers in dozens of cities was one of the new forms of labor creativity aimed at doing something about this. The folks who serve your burgers are demanding that instead of an average fast-food wage of $8.94 an hour, they ought to be paid $15. Assuming two weeks of unpaid vacation, this works out to $30,000 a year, hardly a Ronald McDonald’s ransom.
The protests have the benefit of putting low-wage workers in the media spotlight, a place they’re almost never found in a world more interested in the antics of Miley Cyrus and Donald Trump. “They want a raise with those fries,” the New York Daily News cheekily led its story on the strike.
Key unions are helping to organize these efforts, but they don’t necessarily expect formal union recognition. They want to raise wages, which is what could happen if the public responds. Companies have been frantically painting themselves green to attract environmentally conscious customers. Employers might discover, to paraphrase the old McDonald’s slogan, that their workers deserve a break today if consumers (who are also workers themselves) started pressuring them to be more employee-friendly.

Dionne explains that the protest is linked to the growing movement for a higher minimum wage and “a living wage” for all American workers. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask in this era of soaring corporate profits and growing economic inequality. Dinonne continues,

This is part of a larger strategy to insist that tax dollars not be used in ways that hold down wages. Thus did the group Good Jobs Nation file a complaint this summer alleging that food franchises at federal buildings in the nation’s capital have ignored minimum-wage and overtime laws. The overall objective, as the National Employment Law Project has suggested, should be to use federal contracts, concessions and subsidies as leverage toward a higher-wage economy.
There’s a new idea that brings these approaches together: “Pre-distribution.” The term was coined by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker as an alternative to “redistribution” that involves “government taxes and transfers that take from some and give to others.”
Redistribution is necessary, but Hacker thinks that a more promising long-term solution is to begin changing “the way in which the market distributes its rewards in the first place.” We need a fairer distribution “even before government collects taxes or pays out benefits.

It’s a simple idea, much in keeping with American principles of economic fairness. As Dionne concludes, “The genius of the labor movement has always been its insistence that if the law genuinely empowered workers to defend their own interests, the result would be a more just society requiring fewer direct interventions by government.”

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