Unions are Good

Early in Joe Biden’s Administration there was talk of raising the federal minimum wage to $15. This would more than double the minimum wage that we have both federally and here in Pennsylvania. Many states and cities, and in fact federal contractors, enjoy a higher minimum wage than the current $7.25 an hour. Even so, Bernie Sanders $15/hr. minimum wage amendment to the Covid relief bill failed with just 42 Senate votes. There was discussion of a $12/hr. minimum wage bill being put through under regular order, on a bipartisan basis, but that talk has subsided. Congress again showed that they can’t pass focused, consensus bills that are popular, because they are a broken institution, even when run by the good guys.

A funny thing has happened in the time since though. Unemployment has fallen, and wages have risen. A labor market that desperately needs new workers (thanks to 15 years of failing to address immigration, in part) suddenly finds itself having to pay workers more to find enough people to keep the supply chain moving. These rising wages in an economy re-opening after Covid has supercharged demand at a time when we lack supply, and when you combine that with “corporate greed” (in this case to make up lost profits in the pandemic), you get inflation at rates we haven’t really seen during my 39 years of life. The inflation has eaten the wage gains, and what’s worse is that in the short-term the jobs and wages booms in the Biden economy are making the problem worse (the long term is likely better). This is a cold reality for middle class workers in the post-pandemic economy seeing their wage increases crushed by a dollar that just isn’t going as far for their core needs.

There are fixes the government could do, but most of them take time. One thing that suddenly doesn’t look like a reasonable fix to an overheated economy is just raising the federal minimum wage. Had we done $15 an hour early in 2021, inflation might be worse, and we’d already be debating if we needed to do another increase now. What we are finding out is that the government has limited to no ability to quickly address bust to boom economic cycles on it’s own. This should *not* be read as opposition to raising the minimum wage (Congress should have taken $12/hr. after failing to get $15/hr.), efforts to decrease the cost of energy (both through releasing oil reserves AND subsidizing clean, alternative energy), capping insulin prices and increasing ACA subsidies, or any of the actions the Administration has proposed to help slow down inflation- Congress should do their job and pass them all. What I am saying is that government action takes time, sometimes a year or more, to start making people feel better in everyday life. Washington is slow, policies take time to connect to the public, and that’s a bad combination to deal with a hurting working class in America. Government can’t be your whole answer.

During the 2020 Presidential primaries national trade unions came out against “Medicare for All,” not because they opposed universal care, but because the expanded health insurance’s quality would be lesser than the health insurance most of them had won at the collective bargaining table. As I’ve thought about the issue of wages and costs, I can’t help but think that the most direct and fast place to deal with declining wage value is at the negotiating table between employers and workers, if it was even possible. With closer to a century now of declining labor power in this country, the overwhelming majority of employees in this country have no collective bargaining power at all, and therefore no faster way to address a labor market that does not meet their needs. Increasingly less and less workers are even classified as employees, much less full-time employees, let alone employees represented in a bargaining unit. This leaves more and more workers dependent on government actions to address labor market failures, from lacking insurance and overtime rights, to real-time declining wages. Even if Congress was a functioning institution, this is simply an insufficient way to meet the demands and needs of our population in a satisfactory manner. With whatever functionality they have, the Washington leadership class should try to strengthen non-government institutions like labor unions, to be able to more promptly meet the needs of our laboring class. They’re more responsive in prompt fashion, and they can more acutely meet the needs of the public. If capital owners can organize (think the Chamber of Commerce), certainly workers should be able to freely do so too. If our work force was organized and able to directly voice their needs in negotiation, they could address the market failures causing them issues in their lives.

Make unions great again, Congress.

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