David Cay Johnston: ‘No other modern country treats its workers this way’

Pulitizer Prize winning economics journalist David Cay Johnston has an op-ed for Labor Day, American workers deserve — and must demand — better:

unionsMonday marks the 122nd federal “Labor’s Holiday,” which Congress enacted to celebrate working people. This Labor Day, though, working people have little to celebrate and much to fear.

The good news is that July marked a record 65 consecutive months of private-sector job growth. The country has added 13 million jobs since early 2010 and the job market is poised to continue growing.

The rest of the news for workers is mostly bad, as it has been for the last 35 years. Wages have fallen, once plentiful jobs have become hard to find, job security has vanished, bouts of joblessness average 28 weeks, up from less than 10 in 1970, and Congress lets Wall Street plunder traditional pensions, while the costs of health care consumed an ever larger share of the total compensation workers earn, reducing cash wages.

Here are just a few telling details from my 20 years of documenting how little-known government policies create inequality, largely through stealth mechanisms that take from the many to benefit the already rich few, whom I long ago dubbed the donor class:

— Half of workers make less than $520 a week, a figure that, adjusted for inflation, has been unchanged since 1998, Social Security data show.

— Average pay in 2013 was lower than in 2012 for 59 of the 60 levels of pay tracked by Social Security, with only the 110 jobs paying $50 million or more increasing in pay.

— The average income for 90 percent of Americans has fallen back to the level of 1966, according to IRS data.

— Just 1,361 households received 8 percent of all the real increased income Americans reported in 2012 compared with 2003, while the bottom half of Americans’ income fell by 18 percent, a new IRS report shows.

Millions of workers will be working on Labor Day or not earning any money because in America 1 in 4 workers do not get any paid holidays, 1 in 3 do not get paid sick leave, and almost 60 percent do not get any personal days off with pay for events like the death of a spouse or child, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

No other modern country treats its workers this way. Every other modern country has mandated vacations and holidays (35 days per year in Austria) and paid sick leave, especially for restaurant workers. America is also the only modern nation that does not have government-mandated and taxpayer-financed leave for parents of newborns.

American workers have someone to blame for this sad state of affairs: themselves.

We elected politicians of both parties who measure the value of people not by the content of their character, but by the thickness of their wallets. Indeed, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination cites his riches as his primary qualification.

By deciding whom to vote for — or by choosing not to vote — we ended up with leaders in city halls, state capitals and Washington whose positions are far from what poll after poll shows are widely shared values and policy positions. For example, numerous polls show that most conservatives favor increasing Social Security benefits, yet the talk in Washington is about how to cut benefits.

In lectures across America when I say these things many people respond that nothing can be done, that the rich have rigged the game from how campaigns are financed to how legislative and congressional districts are drawn. The tone is of defeat, despair and surrender.

It need not be this way.

The reality is that we can change America so that working people get a fair shake with better pay, universal health care, and secure incomes in old age. The Australians, the British, the Canadians, the Germans, the Japanese, and every other modern country have managed to do this. Even Portugal, with less than half the economic resources per person of America, does it. If they can afford it, how can we not?

Americans are living longer, but in these other countries people are enjoying even more longevity than we are and with better health, especially in old age, because the rules of their societies mean less stress, time to prepare nutritious meals instead of gobbling down fast food, and the soothing benefits of time with family and friends.

Another fact to consider: If America had the universal health care systems of France or Germany it would have saved so much money that in 2010 we could have eliminated the income tax.

We can solve any problem we have. That is the core idea of our Constitution. Solving problems requires work, determination and time to persuade people of a better way.

Our Constitution, as originally drafted, sustained slavery in more than a dozen subtle ways, but we got rid of slavery.

Women got the right to vote because Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a mother of eight), and others devoted their lives to the cause.

Congress enacted child-labor laws despite ferocious opposition from industrialists and some religious leaders.

The whole idea of the United States of America is that we chose our destiny. For more than three decades we have chosen poorly. We all suffer for it, even the rich, who would be even better off if we had widespread prosperity.

This 122d Labor Day, think about what you can do to make America better, to both promote the general welfare and to make our liberties endure. Then get to work making it better.

One response to “David Cay Johnston: ‘No other modern country treats its workers this way’

  1. The author is absolutely correct…we should be able to do it. But as he points out, politicians of both parties value a fat wallet over social justice. I don’t have any idea how to change it, but I want to see it changed.