By LAURIE WIMMER
On a rainy day this January, I joined Laborers in front of Portland’s City Hall who were preparing to strike for a fair contract. I met a woman there who told me that 10 years ago, she was broke, homeless, and living under a bridge.
It was a good union job, she said, that helped to change her life. Now, she told me proudly, she is a homeowner and a role model for her daughter. That’s why she would defend her contract.
This is why the labor movement is so critical in this moment.
A confusing blizzard of good and bad news often challenges us to see causes and effects, let alone solutions. A recent report suggests that 44% of Oregonians are at or dangerously close to the poverty line — just barely making it. Another offers a hopeful sign that chronic houselessness is declining. Yet one has only to look around to see that the typical worker still struggles. In fact, in just one year (2020-2021), top earners leapt 9.4% ahead while those in the bottom 90% saw their real earnings fall 0.2%. Income inequality’s inevitable result is all around us.
Just take the temperature with your eyes: We still have tents filled with too many despair-filled people, encamped under soaring multi-million-dollar luxury condos built with tax breaks for the rich.
Take the temperature with your ears: Hear the blast of guns, 1,306 shootings last year alone, with a 12% increase in firearm homicides.
Take the temperature with your hearts: In our classrooms, children’s mental health is impacting the learning of all kids, as student outbursts reveal their chronic, poverty-related trauma.
Take the temperature with your mind: If we had stopped policies leading to the rise of income inequality since the late 1970s, and if worker productivity’s benefits had been shared with workers, not just owners, the poverty rate would have dropped to zero by the year 2000.
Take the temperature with your conscience: The worsening of wealth concentration in ever fewer hands has led us to this place. Families are hungry, their health is tanking, educational opportunities for social mobility narrowed by insufficient investment, and safe andaffordable housing is a commodity increasingly available only to the most affluent. There is, in fact, no place in the United States where a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage could afford a two-bedroom apartment.
While the wealthier among us complain about porch pirates pilfering their packages, too many of us have no porch at all.
It is not an accident that the redistribution of economic leverage upward has led us here. As union membership declined in the past 40 years by half, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that working people are now losing $200 billion per year as a result of this erosion in union representation, with that money being redistributed upward. Workers have faced wage theft, misclassification, gig-ification, subcontracting, deregulation, globalization, anemic enforcement of workplace protections, and concerted efforts to rig the power balance in favor of those whose very wealth comes from the labor of employees.
But there are signs that change is coming. Fully 71% of Americans support labor unions. Many are wise to the fact that though the 2017 tax loopholes and giveaways to the rich were defended as a way to boost investment and job creation, U.S. corporations plowed nearly $1 trillion of that money into stock buybacks instead.
Voters can see that income inequality devastates our communities and our economy, and they know that policy solutions exist to begin the healing. They understand that when our workforce thrives, our economy thrives. Just look back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the U.S. economy was the envy of the world: Taxes on the rich were high and labor-union participation was 35%.
So a good first step is to pass the PRO Act, which will strengthen workers’ ability to achieve fair wages. And if Congress wants to bargain over the debt ceiling, ridding our laws of trillions of dollars of tax breaks for the rich should be the first debt-reduction strategy placed on the table.
We know what works. Let’s do it.
Laurie Wimmer is Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council and longtime union and tax policy advocate.