Many hoping for pro-worker State of the Union

President Obama is expected to devote much of next Tuesday’s State of the Union address to income inequality and he will reportedly call for an increase in the minimum wage to $10.00 an hour.

If so, that would please labor unions, who have long been arguing that the most important problem with the U.S. economy is that the wages of the vast majority of Americans have been falling for 30 years now.

According to the Labor Department, in 2000 the median household income was $64,000 and today it is down to $55,640.

Unions say wages for American workers, especially the lowest paid, have to increase and government action is essential to help create good jobs that permit workers to leave behind a life of poverty.

The minimum wage hike the president is expected to call for would affect some 30 million workers, lifting them above official poverty rates and creating many additional jobs with the newly available money they spend.

“Three principles should guide us,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said on Wednesday: “No one should make less than the minimum wage – that means also ending wage theft and establishing fair minimums for tipped and agricultural workers. No one should go to work every day and still be unable to provide for his or her family. Everyone should be able to bargain for fair living standards and a better life.”

If the president calls for a hike in the minimum wage and pursues the policies Trumka outlined, that will begin to close the income gap, but even more will be needed.

Many want to see the president and Congress strengthen, not cut, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They point out that cutting these programs, as the GOP and the tea party would like to do, is precisely the wrong way to go, especially at a time when promises to retirees are being broken and defined benefit pensions are becoming a thing of the past.

It’s hoped that the president will make proposals to close the soaring income gap, with its disastrous effects on the 99 percent. One way he could do that would be to call for a massive program of investment in the nation’s infrastructure in order to create jobs, as many unions and others have advocated.

An indication that President Obama might go in this direction is that he has invited people from all of the major construction and building trades unions to Washington to hear his speech. There are millions of workers ready and willing to be involved in the rebuilding of schools, airports, roads and bridges. But the president will have a difficult job here. The GOP’s recent insistence on cutting funds for high-speed rail out of the federal budget shows how the right wing is committed to opposing infrastructure repair. They have held up a vote on his American Jobs Act since 2011.

Beyond job creation, it is also hoped that the president will explain how closing the income gap requires strengthening the rights of workers on the job. This encompasses a number of critical moves, including strong support for comprehensive, immigration reform.

Obama is expected to push hard for this during his speech, and supporters in the labor movement say he can win the backing of many workers if he makes clear how employers have been able to use the lack of a workable comprehensive immigration law to exploit not just immigrant workers, but all their workers.

There is another piece of this immigration reform battle that can be fixed in the shorter term if the president is willing and able to act by executive order to immediately end the daily deportation of 1,000 immigrants. This deportation is tearing apart both the families affected and the economy of the many communities involved.

A critical piece of the battle to close the income gap was mentioned by Trumka in his pre-State of the Union remarks – that is the right of Americans everywhere to join and form unions. Hopefully, the president will re-emphasize his administration’s intention to go after corporations that violate these rights by punishing workers who exercise them.

The recent decision by the NLRB citing Walmart for violating almost every major U.S. labor law was a major step in the right direction. The president can use his bully pulpit to explain why actions like that are so important to achieving everyone’s right to a fair wage.

Photo: AP


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.