Something very important happened on Tuesday, but it went largely unnoticed.
On the same day that we learned housing prices fell at a record pace last quarter; that the Department of Health and Human Services reported health care costs will top $8,000 per person in 2009; that Barack Obama made Bobby Jindal look like a third grader who fell off the short bus; Hilda Solis, a pro-union advocate of environmental justice and minority and women’s rights was confirmed as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor.
This is a big deal. For the first time since our cohort hit puberty (2001 for most, 2003 for poor ol‘ me), and just in time for us to hit the job market, someone who gives a damn about workers will be in charge of how they’re treated.
First some history. Solis was preceded at the DOL by Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Minority Leader and resident hater-of-the-masses Mitch McConnell. Chao’s most touted accomplishment appears to be reclassifying 5 million “supervisory“ wage earners earning as little as $24,000 a year as “executives,“ thereby making them ineligible for overtime pay.
Chao also oversaw a 26 percent reduction in investigations into worker complaints of owed back wages.
Woo times two.
And although Chao’s DOL budget grew 20 percent since 2002, the discretionary portion – which goes towards things like disadvantaged youth training and adult apprenticeships, assistance to dislocated workers and veterans, enforcement of occupational safety and health regulations and wage and overtime rules – was cut 16 percent. But the mandatory spending swelled; since the Bush economy had the worst job growth in over 80 years, there was a surge in unemployment insurance and other “income maintenance programs.“ And in the face of 9 percent population growth since 2000, Chao’s impact was even more severe than these cuts indicate.
But now that Solis is running the show, there’s a chance some things might not suck so bad.
For one thing, she’s all about unions, and with good reason. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, full-time union members made 25 percent more per year than non-members in 2008. And 80 percent of unionized workers in the private sector receive health insurance coverage from their employer compared with just 49 percent of their non-union counterparts. Unions also secure the sick leave, paid vacations, maternity leave, day care, cost of living adjustments, pension guarantees, grievance procedures and all the little things that make working in a factory that’s louder, hotter and more physically exhausting than a DragonForce concert a good job instead of a shitty one.
Of course, that all cuts into executive pay, so union membership has fallen from 35.5 percent in 1945 to 12.5 percent today. And this decline goes hand in hand with two other important trends.
The first trend is the federal minimum wage. The best year to be a minimum wage earner was 1968; your wage in 2008 dollars would have been $10.10 an hour instead of the $5.15 you earned in 2005 (its lowest level since 1950) or the $7.25 you’ll start earning in July (Solis voted for this increase in 2006, by the way).
The second trend is inequality. A widely used measurement of economic disparity, the Gini-Coefficient, has increased by 23 percent since 1947. According to the UN, we’re now at the same level as Turkmenistan and Ghana.
While real median household income has generally grown, let’s not forget that it takes two workers today to achieve the standard of living that one worker did in the 1950s.
The result is that Americans have been squeezed ever tighter. So while the median household made $50,233 in 2007 according to the BLS, spending on food (12.6 percent), shelter (33.7), clothing (3.7), health care (6.1), transportation (19.5) and mandatory social security contributions (9.6) consumed for 85.2 percent of it. That means that families have just over $600 per month to be saved, spent on entertainment or, I dunno, used to pay for college.
Americans would have a much more secure and comfortable standard of living if wages were higher, if public transportation didn’t suck and if health care, education, job training, daycare, etc. were paid by the state or won via union representation.
And that’s where Hilda Solis can make a difference; by continuing to push for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
The act is pretty simple. As it stands, a union can be recognized through two paths. First, if 30 percent of the workers check cards supporting union representation, then there’s a secret ballot vote in which 50 percent must be in favor.
The second is called card check: If 50 percent of the workers check cards in the initial phase, no vote is needed and the union is recognized … except not.
The business is allowed to demand a vote no matter how many cards are checked; and they always do, because this gives them the opportunity to force employees to attend anti-union meetings with their bosses, start rumors about and intimidate supporters, give organizers crappy shifts or fire them outright and, in the case of Wal-Mart, shut down the whole fucking store.
What the EFCA does is force businesses to recognize unions through the card check process. That is, if 50 percent of the workers check cards in support of a union, there’s a union. End of story. It also mandates binding arbitration within 120 days of union representation and much harsher penalties for businesses that pull the aforementioned shenanigans.
Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. If you want to know the implications of a bill or an issue, just look at what corporations do in response to it. From there you’ll immediately know whether or not it will be good for Americans.
So when Bank of America held a conference call in October with co-failed-and-bailed AIG and other conservative fund raisers and business leaders to coordinate efforts to fight the EFCA, I knew immediately that it was a great fucking idea.
And lucky us, Hilda Solis and Barack Obama think it’s a great fucking idea, too.
So the chess pieces are slowly coming into place for the EFCA, and if Al Franken can finally get his ass into the Senate, the kings of corporate America will be one move closer to being put in check.
Card check, that is.
K.C. CODY couldn’t resist. Really. He just couldn’t. Bemoan his corny but a-maize-ing jokes at email@example.com.