A bailout for the middle class

Pub date June 16, 2009
WriterDebra Walker
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION I don’t need to remind you that our economy is in trouble. The current banking crisis has demonstrated to all of us just how fragile and susceptible to manipulation our current system is. President Obama has spent billions of dollars and untold hours trying to bail out our failing banks and financial institutions. Whatever your opinions about his efforts, I think we can all agree we should also be helping out American workers — the real engine of the economy. The Employee Free Choice Act, currently being debated in Congress, offers needed help.

In 1979, 23 percent of the American workforce earned the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $20 an hour. This level of pay, about $41,000 per year, is generally considered the minimum necessary for a family of four to live something like a middle-class lifestyle. I wish I could say that progress marched on, that every year after 1979 the percentage of workers earning the minimum to support a middle-class family grew. In fact, the opposite happened — today only 18 percent of American workers earn enough to support a family of four.

What happened to the other end of the spectrum during that time? In 1978, American CEOs earned 35 times what the average worker earned. Over the next 10 years, this ratio grew, so that in 1989 the average CEO was earning 71 times what the average worker was earning. By 2007, the ratio had grown to an unbelievable 275.

The causes of this imbalance are many, but one is declining labor union membership. In 1983, 17.7 million workers were members of unions, accounting for 20.1 percent of America’s workers. In 2008, only 16.1 million workers were unionized, accounting for 12.4 percent of our nation’s workforce. These numbers are critically important because union membership makes a large difference in the well-being of America’s workers. In 2008, the average union worker earned $886 a week, while the average nonunion worker was paid only $691.

With all the effort we’re putting in to a bailout of the banks, we need to be discussing a bailout of the middle class. We don’t have to wait for the Treasury Department to come up with the plan — it’s sitting there in Congress and is called the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would give workers a fair, direct route to forming a union without illegal interference from corporations.

Unfortunately, the middle-class bailout is stuck in Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the other shills for mega-corporations have turned up the pressure and succeeded in preventing the Employee Free Choice Act from moving forward in the Senate. Our own Sen. Feinstein recently said she wouldn’t vote for the bill because of the economic downturn, even though she cosponsored the legislation last year.

With the current state of our economy, we need a middle-class bailout — and we need it soon. Feinstein has the ability to make that happen. She should deliver the one bailout we all really need. *

Debra Walker is a San Francisco artist and progressive activist.


The caption for last week’s dine review should have referred to Fly, not Terzo.