Op-Ed: A Labor Day for Low-Wage Workers

WASHINGTON–Earlier this month, Americans nationwide celebrated Labor Day, honoring the men and women who built our country with their toil and talents.  Labor Day is traditionally a day of parades and picnics.  But it should also be a day to honestly acknowledge the jobs that make our great middle class possible are disappearing.

While our economy has shown promising signs of turning around, the fact remains that the wages for millions of Americans are not keeping pace with the rising cost of living. Income inequality has soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression.  And the fastest — growing jobs today are low — paying service jobs in industries such as home care, retail and restaurants.

The minimum wage, which sets the standard for workers in these low — wage industries, is just $7.25 an hour, or $15,000 a year.  This is $3,000 below the poverty level for a family of three.

Low-wage workers who perform some of the most difficult and important jobs in our economy — preparing our food, cleaning our homes and offices, caring for our children and elderly loved ones — often can’t put food on their own tables, keep a roof over their own heads, or afford a safe place to send their own children during the day.

That’s why earlier this year, with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., I introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from its current $7.25, in three steps of 95 cents each, and then provide for automatic annual increases linked to changes in the cost of living.

Our bill would also gradually raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, which currently stands at just $2.13 an hour.  We would raise it for the first time in more than 20 years, to 70% of the regular minimum wage.

Not many of our nation’s low-wage workers were able to celebrate the holiday with parades or barbecues.  But thousands of fast-food workers began observing Labor Day early, in a way that is much more powerful and important for all of us.

These workers are speaking out.  They are exercising their fundamental human right — protected by the laws of our great nation – to stand up and stand together and say “Enough is enough.  I deserve better.”

Thousands of fast-food workers and other low-wage workers in 60 cities across America are joining a growing movement.  Their demands are simple: Fair wages, fair treatment, and a voice on the job about important issues that affect their lives and their
livelihoods.

The ongoing demonstrations are a show of strength and solidarity among working people the likes of which we haven’t seen in this country for decades.  Each and every one of these workers is engaged in an act of true courage.  They are giving up precious hours of pay and facing potential retaliation.  But they are making that brave choice because they know that these risks are worth it, to build a better future for their families and for our entire nation.

These workers deserve our attention and support because they are fighting for a better future for all of us.  If our middle class continues to decline, we all lose.

When our neighbors can’t afford a trip to the grocery store or the auto repair shop, local businesses suffer.  When McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and other hugely profitable companies pay their workers rock-bottom wages, this means taxpayers across America pick up the tab in billions spent on food stamps, Medicaid, and other public assistance.

And, these days, Americans realize most of the new jobs being created are service jobs.  Many parents with good middle-class jobs know their children could very well end up working in these fields, and want their children to have decent, middle-class jobs too.

The minimum wage has become a poverty wage.  It has fallen so low — it has nearly a third less buying power than it did 45 years ago — that it drags down other wages.  That’s why, in a very real sense, these fast-food and service workers are standing up not only for their own families and their own paychecks, but for all of our families and all of our futures.

So to all of the workers who are making their voices heard: thank you.  You are demanding an honest day’s wages for a hard day’s work and a voice on the job — both key stepping stones to the middle class.  This is an all-American aspiration, and it is the right thing to do — for all of us.

By Sen. Tom Harkin
Chairman, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee
PAI