Smith: Our nation’s epidemic of economic insecurity is entirely curable
Edward M. Smith, president and chief executive of Ullico Inc.
Anyone who follows Wall Street has heard it before: Corporate America thrives on predictability and stability. That’s understandable. But it’s time our nation agrees that working men and women need the same.
This Labor Day finds extraordinary unpredictability and instability for working families. Health threats brought by the coronavirus have been unnerving. The toll of illness and death has coated everyday life, leading to greater economic instability for millions of workers as workplaces shut down or employees were forced to choose between their lives and their livelihoods.
Unfortunately, this is not a new development for our nation’s working class and middle class. For at least a generation before the pandemic, workers have struggled for stability in the face of stagnant wages, disappearing jobs, scarcity of affordable quality health care and unpredictable retirement security. The virus only added a layer of evictions, joblessness, accelerating inequality and powerlessness.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 1979 and 2018, productivity grew 70%, while hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers grew just 12%. For those who are paid the least — often the essential employees saluted during the pandemic — wages have grown only 3% in the last 40 years.
In the richest nation on Earth, 3 in 10 voters report they have trouble paying basic household bills, according to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. And a lifetime of work no longer results in retirement security. Nearly half of workers have little to no confidence they’ll have enough savings for retirement, according to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. It’s no wonder that for more than 20 years, in a monthly Gallup poll, a majority of Americans consistently say the country is on the wrong track.
This is not the America that working people or future generations want or deserve. The good news this Labor Day is that a movement is rising to cure the epidemic of instability for working people.
It is a movement coming from both above and below; led by some elected leaders in Washington as well as by working men and women in our country’s heartland.
In the last year, a majority of workers at a Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse for Amazon, the nation’s second-largest employer, pledged support for a union in a historic first. After a vicious anti-union campaign, that majority was destroyed, though the results are on the verge of being thrown out due to what I believe is the company’s illegal behavior.
There are less high-profile examples. In the last year, workers in Lincoln, Nebraska, walked off their Burger King jobs to protest working conditions, replacing the restaurant’s “have it your way” sign with “Sorry for the inconvenience, we all quit.” Workers at a Topeka, Kansas, Frito Lay plant, weary of seven-day workweeks and 12-hour workdays, waged a bitter three-week strike, winning days off and pay hikes. In each revolt, workers were seeking a simple measure of control, predictability and stability.
From the top, President Joe Biden has brokered a deal to fix our nation’s crumbling infrastructure that could create hundreds of thousands of good, family-sustaining union jobs. His American Rescue Plan included provisions to secure the retirements of more than 1 million people. He spoke out against employers like Amazon, and he has forcefully supported the Pro Act, which would fix our country’s broken workplace laws that now exacerbate workers’ insecurity and instability.
Biden calls himself a pro-union president for simple, good reasons. It is because union workers are in partnership with — not subjugation to — their employers. They earn enough to pay the bills, keep the lights on and support their families. They have the power to say no to unsafe work. And they have certainty around what much of the civilized world is guaranteed, such as paid sick and family leave and health care.
In short, union workers have the predictability, security and stability that Wall Street also expects.
Richard L. Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO whose recent untimely and tragic passing was noted by Biden, may have said it best: “A union card is the single best tool working people have.”
I believe we should build a nation where Labor Day is every day. It would require that the ladder to the middle class be predictable and on stable ground. The best way to steady that ground is a voice and a union for every worker.
Edward M. Smith is president and chief executive of Ullico Inc., the nation’s only labor-owned insurance and investment company.
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