Labor Day is a national holiday created to extol the economic and social achievements of American workers. But other than a three-day weekend, what do lower-paid, underemployed, and unemployed workers, especially in Ohio, have to celebrate today? Not so much.
Start with this: Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is $2.19 lower today than it was in 1968, the Economic Policy Institute calculates. And the unemployment rate is more than twice as high as it was then.
American workers are far more productive today, but wages for most of them have dropped since the Great Recession. Millions of Americans who work full-time, and their families, remain poor.
The progressive advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio has released its indispensable annual summary of the state of working Ohio. Among the discouraging findings in this year’s report, appropriately titled “Stuck”:
● The rate of participation in Ohio’s labor force has reached at least a 33-year low. Ohio has yet to recover the jobs it lost in the 2001 recession, much less the more recent one. More than one-third of unemployed Ohioans have been out of work for at least six months.
● Since 2005, when state government cut taxes with the promise that the strategy would create jobs, Ohio has lost more jobs than all but three other states (Michigan is one of them).
● Ohio’s median wage — half of all workers make more, half make less — grew by just two cents an hour last year, to $15.54. That wage now trails the national median wage by 75 cents; a generation ago, we were $1.50 ahead. The bottom 70 percent of Ohio workers earn less now, taking inflation into account, than their counterparts in 1979 did.
● Employment of Ohio workers between the ages of 25 and 54 — what should be their prime earning years — is at its lowest point since 1985.
● Women workers in Ohio make $3 an hour less than men. African-American workers make $3.50 an hour less than whites. Black unemployment in Ohio is twice as high as the white rate.
How can Ohio turn around these disturbing trends: dismal job recovery, shrinking wages, widening income gaps? One thing our state must not do is enact “right-to-work” legislation, the subject of Republican-sponsored measures before the General Assembly and a possible ballot proposal in 2014.
The legislation would prohibit Ohio employers from requiring workers who decline to join a union to pay “fair share” fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining on their behalf. The proposal is a blatant effort to discourage union membership.
Advocates of right-to-work measures say they help create jobs, contribute to economic growth, raise the standard of living, and attract workers to states that have such laws (most recently Michigan). But in Ohio, which ranks seventh among the states in union-represented workers, union bargaining has improved wages and job conditions for all workers.
To the contrary, credible evidence suggests that right-to-work laws depress wages, limit job opportunities, deny workers’ rights, encourage employers not to offer health and retirement benefits, and aggravate income inequality. Ohio doesn’t need any of that.
What our state does need to do is invest more in Ohio and its workers, not in further tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the state’s wealthiest residents.
We need to invest more in basic and higher education — a greater predictor of economic and wage growth than state tax rates. We need to restore, not reduce further, public-employee jobs, to boost the economy and strengthen Ohio communities and families by providing essential services.
We need to invest in public transportation, so workers who can’t afford cars can still get to jobs. We need to invest in advanced energy, not only to save money and limit climate change, but also to create good-paying, high-skilled jobs.
If Ohio were to do all these things, its workers might have more to celebrate on Labor Day 2014, and beyond.