Column: As poverty grows, income gap widens, labor leads fight

Certainly not all Americans are in support of the Bush administration’s current economic policies. George W. Bush’s new tax cut plan unfairly targets only the wealthiest segments of our population at a time when we see escalating poverty, hunger and a scarcity of employment opportunities. In addition, his recent Unemployment Benefit Extension bill fails to aid the more than one million additional workers who have exhausted both their normal unemployment benefits and those under the emergency programs. Also, ever-increasing military spending for a war in Iraq has resulted in reduced funding for social services and in desperately needed funding for education. With often-mute opposition from the Democratic Party leadership, it is up to students to take our future into our own hands.

Today, the labor movement is at the forefront, giving a voice for workers in national politics. It is a vehicle that we as students can use to fight back against President Bush’s policies and counteract inequality in pay, rampant unemployment and the dominance of corporations in our political and daily life.

Workers form unions to win basic rights like health care, pensions, higher wages and to earn a say in their working conditions. While many of us students have never had a union job, unions have already had a gigantic impact on our lives as we prepare to enter the workforce. After all, it was union members who brought us the 40-hour workweek, helped fight for a federal minimum wage, struggled for worker safety and continue to organize for quality health care and fair wages at work. Despite this current economic crisis, forming unions gives workers a way to close the widening pay gap as union members earn 25 percent more than similar types of workers without a union and are far more likely to receive health benefits and have greater job security.

At GW, many of our workers have formed unions, such as the cafeteria workers at J-Street, the housekeeping staff and janitors on campus. They benefit from the ability to bargain collectively and have a voice on the job. Union jobs are both white and blue-collar jobs. From steelworkers to adjunct professors, janitors to journalists, truckers to professional actors and fire fighters to hospital nurses, almost 16 million working Americans in the United States today belong to unions. As workers form unions and gain these rights the entire community benefits from the stronger tax base, which can be put into funding better schools and infrastructures and create healthier local economies. It also offers a greater opportunity to voice and articulate alternatives to the Bush administration policies.

We desperately need more union members in today’s unstable economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the average workers’ paycheck has been shrinking over the past 25 years. The average wage has fallen 13.2 percent since 1973, from $565 a week to $490 in 2002, taking inflation into account. Despite this, CEO pay continues to skyrocket. Since 1980, CEO pay has gone up 875 percent (adjusted for inflation) while the minimum wage has dropped 23 percent due to the rate of inflation outpacing minimum wage increases. Today, millions of Americans are earning minimum wage and consequently struggling below the poverty line – forced to work more than one job.

Women, minorities and immigrants have the most to gain by joining and forming unions and as students we can help them. Working women on average are paid 73 cents for every dollar earned by men, yet female union members are less likely to face these pay discrepancies because they are paid on average 30 percent more than their non-union counterparts. African-Americans and immigrant workers that form unions are able to address discrimination because with a union contract, management must treat all workers the same regarding promotions, work schedules or disciplinary actions.

As a GW undergraduate, I helped workers form unions through a program called Union Summer. A group of 30 students worked in Seattle going to office buildings helping area janitors organize. We also helped health-care workers pass a ballot initiative that gave them the right to form their own union. It is very rewarding work and the results were outstanding. For instance, some of the janitors we helped organize now earn an average of two dollars more an hour with health benefits they had not received prior and the ballot initiative was passed, allowing the 26,000 home care workers in Washington to form a union.

I encourage any student who sees health care as a right and not a privilege or believes in job security and feels that hardworking Americans should earn a fair and livable wage to consider becoming a union organizer. The AFL-CIO Organizing Institute offers a paid training and job placement program for people who know what side they are on and are ready to help workers fight back. Read more about the OI on their Web site at www.organize.aflcio.org. We cannot wait until conditions worsen, it’s our future and we must be willing to fight for it.

-The writer, a graduate student in the School of Political Management, is a Hatchet columnist.

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