Labor Day is a celebration of the American working class, and was, at first, more specifically a celebration of organized labor. When unions were strong in this country the middle class expanded dramatically and the minimum wage kept up with inflation. Organized labor demanded fair wages, health and retirement benefits, and equal treatment of workers under management and the law. The power of unions in major corporations even raised expectations and results in smaller, non-union businesses.
During President Ronald Reagan’s time in office a successful assault on unions began. Worker gains made over decades were rolled back. States like North Carolina decided to try to attract industrial companies with laws that protected corporations instead of workers. Union membership has fallen nationwide, and the middle class, once the largest demographic group in the country, is now the smallest. Poverty is the new normal, with a federal minimum wage that hasn’t increased in many years.
In states which have raised the minimum wage, and others where cities have local control of wages, an increase in the minimum always results in a boost to the economy. The reason is pretty simple. People at the bottom of the income scale spend all of their money. When the minimum goes up they expand their purchasing, maybe buying some better food, some new furniture or clothing, then perhaps a newer car, and maybe a meal out at someplace other than a fast food joint. The new spending spreads wealth throughout a community or state.
With Republican control of the General Assembly in Raleigh, we can’t expect any change in the minimum wage in North Carolina any time soon. The party of the oligarchs likes things just fine the way they are.
When Republicans took control of the General Assembly and Governorship they gutted unemployment compensation, turned down billions of federal dollars by rejecting Medicaid expansion, slashed education spending, implemented vast tax cuts for the rich and corporations and continue to hold down wages. The current minimum wage in North Carolina, $7.25 per hour, is about half of what can reasonably be called a Living Wage.
At the City level, under our state laws, we can’t do much, but we do a little.
During my terms in office we have made a Living Wage, as determined by the Asheville-based group Just Economics, the minimum for City employees.
When companies seek tax increment incentive grants (that is, a short-term rebate on taxes on new investment by either a new company or an expanding company), I have successfully insisted that they must guarantee a minimum wage equal to the local Living Wage, and a median wage equal to the local median.
A few years ago we tried to make a Living Wage a requirement for all City contractors, but that was shut down by Republicans in Raleigh.
If there is a meaningful solution in sight for American workers, it will come at the ballot box. It’s quite appalling that so many people continue to vote against their own self interest due to social hot-button issues which have no effect on their personal lives …. but which hammer them economically.
As we celebrate Labor Day, and the vital importance of American workers who have built a society and an economy that is the envy of the world, we need to rededicate ourselves to pushing back against oligarchy. All of us are created equal and it’s way past time to assert our power as workers to challenge unfair wages and rules. We must demand a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave and universal single payer health care. We should settle for nothing less.