Labor Day ought to be more than a reminder of the pivotal role unions played in blue-collar America’s 20th-century zenith. The remembrance of triumphs past — wages raised, benefits obtained, a middle class expanded — certainly inspire, but nostalgia alone offers little to workers, unionized or otherwise, who fear the future.
The present doesn’t seem much more comforting as income growth continues to be slow-moving by historical standards, leaving many Americans feeling stuck in place.
Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling last year in the Janus v. AFSCME case is widely regarded as a potentially serious blow to union organizing in the public sector. This is particularly troubling given the historical link between higher union membership, sustained wage gains, and an expanding middle class.
Only 13 percent of all workers in Pennsylvania and 15 percent in New Jersey were unionized as of 2018, compared to 38 and 39 percent, respectively, in 1964. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says membership in public and private unions combined has been in decline since 1983. (Although, on a promising note, a year after the ruling, The Inquirer’s Juliana Feliciano Reyes reported in July that some local labor officials see the Janus decision helping bolster the ranks.)
Not surprisingly, there is some research that suggests that the dramatic overall drop in private sector union membership that began in the 1970s is related to rising wage inequality overall, an issue that is familiar in Pennsylvania where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the lowest wage allowed in the United States by law.
Across the river in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat with a solidly Democratic legislature, signed a $15 minimum wage bill into law earlier this year. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat with a Republican legislature, has said he would like to do the same. But his effort to win GOP support has sputtered as the General Assembly has consistently refused a wage increase.
This is further compounded in Pennsylvania by a state law that preempts cities from imposing their own minimum wage. (Though Philadelphia has raised the wage for city workers and contractors, and in the May municipal primary 138,000 voters in Philadelphia voted in support of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a strong if symbolic gesture.) The opposition argues that increasing the minimum wage will lead to job losses and slower growth, though some evidence suggests that claim is false or exaggerated.
A powerful Yale Law Journal essay from 2016 suggests that the nationwide Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign is taking on the role of a mass collective bargaining process, establishing new norms for wages and shifting conversations.
Wolf and legislators of both parties in Harrisburg ought to be able to figure out how to use the road maps Fight for $15 and others are developing to pass a minimum wage increase for hundreds of thousands of hardworking Pennsylvanians.
That would be a victory worth celebrating on Labor Day. Or any other day.