A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

Dec
3
2013

Written by Caitlin Endyke

An estimated 92 million shoppers took advantage of holiday deals on Black Friday this year.  Yet as those of us too full from Thanksgiving leftovers to brave the box-store crowds watched the usual reports of long lines and record sales on news broadcasts throughout the day, a few other stories stood out amongst the crowd.  Over 110 people were arrested at Walmarts across the country, not for fights in early-morning lines, but for staging protests that demanded better wages for the retailer’s employees.  In between talk of college finals and football prospects, conversation at my family’s Thanksgiving table turned toward a discussion of whether or not Walmart’s form of capitalism (one that maximizes shareholder profit at the expense of employee wages and benefits) was ultimately detrimental to the economy at large. Walmart employs 1.3 million Americans – the largest private employer in the country – and earns $17 billion in profits annually.  Yet workers are fighting for an hourly wage that would amount to just $25,000 per year for a full-time worker – an amount just above the poverty line. 

Of course Walmart is far from the only culprit.  Big-businesses in America have been systematically de-valuing workers since the late 1970s.  This amazing historical analysis from the American Prospect begins in 1974 – the first year in which American wages declined since the end of World War II – and outlines exactly how the average American worker has continued to lose earning power in the years since.  While from 1947 until 1974 American’s earnings basically matched their productivity, from 1975 onward the raise in productivity has outpaced the rise in earnings by almost 150%. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage is over three dollars lower than it was in 1968, when accounting for inflation. The share of workers provided with health insurance from their employers has fallen almost 15% since 1979. While the US remains number 1 in the world for hours worked per employee, we’re last when you compare annual wage growth to annual growth in productivity. All the while, US CEO’s are raking in over 250% more of the profit share than they were getting in the 1960s.

The Prospect article outlines a myriad of reasons for the decline of power of American workers.  The decrease in Union power, trade treaties that made overseas manufacturing easier, and low-wage retail jobs taking up a growing share of a workforce that was once dominated by skilled manufacturing – all contribute to the fact that the average American worker is making comparatively less than he did forty years ago.  While the article is admittedly very long, it’s worth taking the time to read.  While many are talking about the economic insecurities of America’s middle and lower classes, few are outlining just how we got to where we are today. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that it wasn’t always this way.  As little as a generation ago, American workers felt secure in their jobs and their ability to move up the economic ladder.  They could count on making more next year than they made in this one. We need to remember how we got here, in order to try to make our way back.

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