Poverty is increasing in America. One major factor is the widespread prevalence of low-wage jobs. Some call it the Wal-Martization of America. Others call it the end of the middle class. Still, to others, it's class war.
Whatever your preferred phrase, the facts are America is drowning in poverty and low-wage jobs that force families and whole communities to struggle and cobble together ways to get by month to month. One third of Americans - 104 million working people have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year.
That's what 780 Joliet, Ill.-based Caterpillar workers are up against in their strike against the global giant. They are fighting to maintain a liveable wage in an age of dire economic, gender and racial inequality - with a wealth gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% of enormous proportion.
The average wage for these workers is $26 per hour or about $55,000 per year, not including overtime. Frankly, that's peanuts. If the federal minimum wage, based on what it was in 1968, was indexed since then to inflation and worker productivity it would be $20 an hour! That's why there is a fight to raise the minimum wage.
Yet Caterpillar executives insist - amidst record profits, $4.9 billion last year, and favorable growth predictions - that workers should get a six-year wage freeze and a two-tier system with newer hires making a mere $13 an hour. Caterpillar's attacks on workers' hard won standards of living sets the standard for other manufacturers to follow, keeping up an unending race to the bottom.
Meanwhile, Caterpillar celebrated its record profits by showering top executives with millions of dollars in pay raises and bonuses. CEO Doug Oberhelman took nearly $17 million, a pay raise of 60% over 2010.
That's Caterpillar capitalism, according to one New York Times writer. Concentration of wealth on the top tier while the majority on the bottom pays for it with sweat and blood.
The execs say the workers are paid above the "market." What they don't say is corporate America set the wage market and uses every method to shove it lower.
The multi-decade attack on unions by corporate America and their far-right politicians in Washington are significant factors in this current state of things. In 2011, economists at Harvard found that the steep drop off in unionization in the United States is one of the primary causes of the wealth gap.
"Deunionization explains a fifth of the inequality increase for women, and a third for men. The decline of organized labor among men contributes as much to rising wage inequality as the growing stratification of pay by education," they wrote.
The courageous Caterpillar strikers are members of the International Association of Machinists union. It's when workers come together - collectively - to organize for better wages and working conditions, you have a better shot at winning.
By extension, communities that stand with these strikers - or other union workers, like the locked out Crystal Sugar workers - boost the chances of victory - something that would benefit all working people regardless if they are in a union or not.
Stand with the Machinists because they are fighting to hold the line on wages for all of us.
Photo: Caterpillar workers hold the line. PW Photo.