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Bob Bytes Back Archives: 5/08/1996 America Needs A Raise (Labor)

by Bob Fitrakis

Last Wednesday at Columbus City Hall, local community and labor organizations sent a graphic and powerful message to our city and nation: America Needs a Raise! The AFL-CIO is sponsoring a series of town meetings across the country where workers can speak out publicly about their increasing insecurity and reduced standard of living. And so they came: the tired working poor, haggard working single mothers, laid-off and anxious middle-level managers, and downtrodden temps.

Those reading the Wolfe Family Newsletter (aka Dispatch), may have missed the event since they tucked the small article on an inside page of an additional Metro section. That’s not surprising, the highly paid and tightly leashed Wolfe family lapdogs regularly sprinkle the editorial pages with shocking tales of wealthy woes. Usually it’s about some poor millionaire denied a tax abatement by greedy inner-city Columbus schoolchildren or CEOs unable to purchase their third mansion because of heartless workers demanding the minimum wage be raised.

Not that I don’t find these predictable perils afflicting the rich and famous printed in the Daily Monopoly somewhat amusing in the same way I like to check out the tabloids while I wait in line at the grocery store, but why not listen to and write about people who actually know what the price of milk and bread is?

The reality is that many American workers are falling farther behind. Between 1978 and 1995, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the buying power of workers’ hourly wages fell 12 percent. Since 1980, at virtually the same time, CEO compensation rose by 360 percent. Not that it’s an easy job to sit around all day deciding whether you’re going to invest in the literal slave labor of Burma, the sweatshops of the Mexican maquilladoras, or child labor in Bangladesh. Tough decisions, no doubt.

Yet, it’s also difficult to raise four kids on $2.13 an hour plus tips at Bob Evans. Just ask Kim, who spoke at the town meeting at City Hall, who’s also attending college in her “spare” time. Kim belongs to a category of minimum and sub-minimum wage workers who are easily discarded.

An increase in the minimum wage would directly benefit some 12.6 million Americans–not just teenagers, as the Daily Monopoly hints. Sixty-nine percent of minimum wage workers are age 20 or older. The minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 1991; fulltime year-round workers make only $8,840 a year, over $3,000 less than the poverty level for a family of three. Moreover, while we accept the fact that anyone over the age of 65, rich or poor, needs a cost of living allowance (COLA) for Social Security benefits, our society refuses to adjust for inflation the wages of the most vulnerable and exploited.

The Wolfe Family Newsletter is fond of printing the headline: “Unemployment Rates Low in Franklin County,” usually implying that one of their even more tightly leashed political favorites–read Governor Voinovich, Mayor Lashutka, Rep. Kasich–is responsible. They neither print the flip side, the exceptionally high poverty rate, nor tell us the real facts: that there are various definitions of employment. Included in this low unemployment rate are “contingent” workers, those who work part-time, temporary and contract jobs. There are up to an estimated 37 million American contingent workers.

I know, I see them every day where I work at Columbus State. In a survey last fall, 72 percent of all the courses taught at my college in the division of Arts and Sciences were by so-called Adjunct Instructors. Many teach what would be the equivalent of a full load at most colleges to earn $12,000 a year without benefits.

One of my part-time colleagues, Elizabeth, explained with great emotion and articulation what it’s like to live in these economic circumstances. She can only afford to reside in Section 8 publicly subsidized housing with her seven-year-old son, and receives health care from one of the last remaining federally subsidized inner-city health clinics. She’s one of many highly educated people I know with master’s and Ph.D degrees who daily face economic hardship and distress. They’re victims of a relentless right-wing rhetoric that says we must do more with less, we must cut back on educational needs and run every public institution as if it were a business. A recent business survey found that 21 percent of the companies questioned hire 10 percent or more of their employees on a temporary basis. It predicts that 35 percent of all companies will have 10 percent or higher rates of contingent workers by the year 2000.

Yes, we’re talking about the much-ballyhooed “rewarding field of temporary service.” General rule: if they have to say “rewarding field,” it isn’t. At least not in terms of compensation. Almost half of all part-time workers between the ages of 25 and 45 have no employer-provided health insurance. And last year, the New York Times reported that Manpower, Inc. was America’s leading employer. An estimated 3.2 million part-time workers report that they would gladly work full-time starting tomorrow if only their companies would let them.

If American companies who are making record profits would pay and treat their workers better, then taxpayers would not have to subsidize “contingent” workers with health care, food stamps and housing allowances. A follow-up meeting on the subject “America Needs a Raise” will be held on Wednesday, May 8 at 5:30 p.m. at the AFL-CIO, 271 E. State Street.