Economists and folks in Washington and Wall Street tell us that America’s economy is nearly fully recovered. Many point to surging corporate profits and a stock market at record highs, while the latest jobs report touts that unemployment is at a 16-year low. But for too many working families, this news has little actual impact on their lives. With limited shifts, low wages and scarce benefits, it feels almost impossible for many Americans to get their slice of the pie.
This Labor Day, if working families across the country feel like they’re under fire, it’s because they are. Over the last four decades, Republican politicians and their corporate allies have declared open season on America’s workers, doing everything in their power to drive down people’s paychecks by cutting minimum wages and gutting their unions.
The Republican legislature and Gov. Eric Greitens (R-Mo.) didn’t blink before trying to undo what so many people in St. Louis had fought for so long. Once the city increased minimum wage to $10 an hour, lawmakers in Jefferson City rushed through a bill stripping cities of their right to set their own minimum wage. Greitens allowed this unconscionable bill to become law, and as a result, the minimum wage in St. Louis went back down to $7.70 an hour last week, literally taking money out of the paychecks of 30,000 St. Louis workers.
No one seriously believes that cutting the minimum wage is good for workers. In fact, just this month, voters on the other side of my state in Kansas City approved a ballot measure by a more than 2-1 margin calling for the city’s minimum wage to go to $15 an hour. Workers and lawmakers in Kansas City now are demanding that Jefferson City politicians get out of the way and let them implement this raise. Missouri Republicans haven’t stopped at cutting the pay of minimum wage workers.
Together they have eviscerated one of the most effective tools for improving the lives of workers: organized labor. State by state, Greitens and other Midwestern governors like Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) have forced through “right to work” laws, a perversely named policy that decimates the ability of workers to bargain collectively and rules that keep workers safe. This law has gotten support of Republican legislatures across the country eager to cash in on corporate campaign funding. Reports are now surfacing about huge “dark money” contributions pouring into anti-worker groups in an effort to defend the “right to work” law Greitens signed earlier this year.
Their plan is working. Just last year, nationwide union membership hit an all-time low. Studies have shown these trends have a devastating impact on working Americans, indicating a direct link between the decline in union membership and the middle class’s falling share of national income. Unions continue to be important for raising the standard of living for working Americans, whether or not they happen to be in a union.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers are paid higher wages and enjoy better benefits and working conditions than non-union workers. These advantages extend to their friends and neighbors, as census data show that the middle class earns more in states with higher levels of union membership. On the other hand, wages in right to work states are 3.1 percent lower than those in other states. That means on average, someone working full time is making about $1,500 a year less in right to work states, whether or not they are in a union.
Working people across the country are clamoring for change, not more of the same anti-worker policies that fail to make anything better. To improve the standard of living for working folks, we have to raise the minimum wage and empower workers to fight for their interests in an economic and political system that’s stacked against them. This Labor Day, workers from my hometown of Kansas City and across the country will join together, led by the “Fight for $15” movement, to confront those in power who continue to advance policies that hurt working families.
Whether they’re on Capitol Hill or at the statehouse, politicians are on notice. They must do what they have been elected to do and help improve the lives of those who sent them there. Support for a $15 minimum wage and strong unions isn’t just good for workers, it is also critical to who we are as a country: a nation where all people can stand together to improve the lives of their families and their communities.
Jason Kander is the 39th Missouri secretary of state and was a member of the Missouri House of Representatives after serving as a military intelligence officer for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. He ran to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate in 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKander.
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