Opinion: Widening wage disparity calls for collaboration

Ron Bieber
Stock photo of money

Earlier this spring, the Michigan Association of United Ways released its third annual ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report. Their findings confirmed what many working families across Michigan already knew from paying their bills at the end of each month: Workers need a raise.

The data from 2017 show that 1.66 million households, or 43 percent of the population in our state, struggle to afford the basic necessities of housing, child care, food, technology, health care and transportation. 

The study also found that while a family of four needs earnings of nearly $31 an hour, 61 percent of jobs in Michigan pay less than $20 per hour. Between 2010 and 2017 the cost of basic household expenses went up more than 25 percent. In order to save money to meet those growing costs, families cut back on things like preventative health care, healthy eating and accredited childcare.

Reporting form the Associated Press earlier this month further underscores the struggles facing working families across the nation. While our economic expansion is entering its 11th year (the longest of record), still, not everyone is feeling the recovery since the recession.

While the wealthy are now much better off than they were before the recession started, income growth for working families has been sluggish at best.

When it comes to household wealth over the last decade, more than a third of the gains have gone to the wealthiest one percent, while the lowest 50 percent received less than two percent of the gains. With this level of disparity, it is no wonder 43 percent of Michigan’s workers are struggling to afford the basics.  

The disparities are not just limited to income. Home values are up, but fewer working families own homes, and the increase in values is largely concentrated in coastal urban areas. The stock market is also doing well — the longest bull market in U.S. history. But again, fewer people own stocks, in large part due to many workers now being forced to settle for contract work that offers no access to retirement savings plans or other benefits. This divide is simply unsustainable in the long term.

It’s no coincidence that these disparities begin to widen when corporate and political attacks set out to weaken unions. The labor movement was born from the need to protect the freedoms of working people. From fighting for a fair return on our work, reasonable hours and safe working conditions, to securing a retirement with dignity and gaining access to healthcare, we work in order to be able to support our families. 

The labor movement has begun to forge new relationships in its efforts to fight for the interests of working people. As philanthropic organizations have turned their focus toward social and economic injustice, partnerships have started to form with labor-related nonprofits who have similar goals. A notable example is the Ford Foundation’s $1-billion, five-year investment which lists many such labor-related nonprofits among its grantees.

By creating more of these partnerships, we can address the inequities described above. We can focus not just on job creation, but making sure those jobs provide family-sustaining wages. We can help folks have access to the skills training and education they need to obtain those jobs. And, we can see to it that working families have quality, affordable health care.

There is true potential for the next decade to be a return to economic stability for working people, where labor, foundations and nonprofits work together to change the rules so that we build an economy that works for everyone.

Ron Bieber is the president of Michigan AFL-CIO.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.