Labor Day provided a good time to reflect on the condition of America's forgotten majority. Although everyone likes to think of America as made up of mostly the middle class, more than 70 percent of America's labor force does not have a college degree. And the majority earns less than $15 an hour. Try supporting a family on that. Tens of millions of families find themselves struggling to pay the bills, even if they are lucky enough to have a second income.
This past year has been another one down the drain for labor. While productivity (the amount that an hour of labor produces) grew by 2.3 percent, real hourly wages were unchanged. What was unimaginable 30 years ago has become the norm: The country grows ever richer, but the vast majority of Americans are excluded from sharing the gains.
Even the moderately low unemployment rate, now at five percent, is misleading. Since the last recession (in 2001), many workers have dropped out of the labor force and therefore are not counted as unemployed. A better reading of the labor market is the percentage of people employed: it has fallen by 1.9 percentage points, or about 4.3 million people, since its peak in 2000. These people would presumably be working if there were jobs available. If we add them to the unemployed, the unemployment rate today would be 7.9 percent. Also, even without this addition, we have intolerable levels of unemployment among large sectors of the population: for African-Americans, it is 9.5 percent; for black teenagers, depression-level unemployment rates of 33 percent.
As inequality increases, the security of a middle-class life -- "the American dream" -- becomes something that most Americans can only dream about. Disagreements about how to reverse these trends led to a split last month in organized labor: About one-third (and possibly more in the near future) of union members left America's central labor federation, the AFL-CIO. One of the biggest issues was how to increase union membership, which has fallen from 30 percent of the labor force in the 1960s to just 12.5 percent today.
The majority of workers, in polls, have indicated that they would join a union if they could. But as Human Rights Watch has pointed out, employers can fire and intimidate workers with such impunity that the right of workers to organize or join a union barely exists in the United States. Labor law reform is sorely needed to re-establish these basic rights.
Another issue for labor has been global union organizing, to match the global reach of transnational corporations. This is a good idea, but labor will need an independent foreign policy to take on this task. Currently, the AFL-CIO's international arm -- the American Center for International Labor Solidarity -- gets 96 percent of its $32 million annual budget from the U.S. government. This, too, must change.
But most of the reform that labor needs cannot come from within organized labor itself but rather from more powerful institutions -- for example Congress and the media. These institutions continue to treat more than 110 million workers in our offices, factories, construction sites, hospitals, retail stores and elsewhere as though they were a "special interest." It is no coincidence that Canada and Europe, with union membership rates several times larger than ours, have universal health insurance and we don't.
This is just part of the high price we pay for the suppression of labor in the United States.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.