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America's Workers
Census figures
September 18, 2009

The recovery may be on the way for the markets and some sectors of society — but many economy-watchers think it will be some time before things look brighter for many Americans. A recent report from the Census Bureau paints a gloomy picture:
  • There were 39.8 million people in poverty in 2008, up from 37.3 million in 2007.
  • The number of children living in poverty increased to 14.1 million in 2008, up from 13.3 million in 2007.
  • Median household income in the United States fell 3.6 percent between 2007 and 2008.
  • The number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 45.7 million in 2007 to 46.3 million in 2008.
Young Workers

A great deal of media attention has been paid to the effect of the downturn on workers over 45 — who indeed are experiencing their highest unemployment rate in decades. But those just entering the workforce have been facing a deteriorating work landscape for a number of years. A new study from the AFL-CIO entitled "Young Workers: A Lost Decade" compares data on workers under 35 with a similar study done in 1999. Among the findings:

  • 31 percent of young workers report being uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago, and 79 percent of the uninsured say they don't have coverage because they can't afford it or their employer does not offer it.
  • One in three young workers are currently living at home with their parents.
  • Only 31 percent say they make enough money to cover their bills and put some money aside—22 percentage points fewer than in 1999—while 24 percent cannot even pay their monthly bills.
  • A third cannot pay their bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.
  • 37 percent have put off education or professional development because they can't afford it.
Working Conditions

THE NEW YORK TIMES was one paper among many that published stark editorials based on the findings of a new study on workplace conditions, BROKEN LAWS: UNPROTECTED WORKERS.

The TIMES wrote: "An important new study has cast an appalling light on a place where workplace laws fail to protect workers, where wages and tips are routinely stolen, where having to work sick, injured or off the clock is the price of having a job. The place is the United States, all across the lower strata of the urban economy."

The study, conducted by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, is available online. Among the findings were:
  • Overtime violations: Over a quarter of the respondents worked more than 40 hours during the previous week. Of those, 76 percent were not paid the legally required overtime rate by their employers.

  • Minimum wage violations: Fully 26 percent of workers in the sample were paid less than the legally required minimum wage in the previous work week.*

  • The average worker: Assuming a full-time, full-year work schedule, the study estimated that these workers lost an average of $2,634 annually due to workplace violations, out of total earnings of $17,616. That translates into wage theft of 15 percent of earnings.
Employee Free Choice Act

Some labor and economy watchers are calling the Employee Free Choice Act the crucial labor test for the Obama administration. During her confirmation hearings, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis faced tough questioning on the act and according to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:
Hilda Solis called recent U.S. job losses a "crisis," but declined to take a position on proposals to allow unions to organize without secret-ballot elections during a Senate hearing Friday on her nomination to be Labor Secretary. Ms. Solis, a California Democrat, has supported legislation to allow "card-check" organizing in the past. Unions and many Democrats have made easing union-organizing rules a top priority, but business interests are vowing to fight such legislation.
The Employee Free Choice Act would create an alternate, faster road to union recognition in the work place. In addition to the current election system, overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, the bill creates a system where if over 50 percent of workers sign a "card" to show interest in unionization the process could go forward and the employer would be required to recognize the union as a bargaining agent. "The so-called 'card check' process would be much quicker than the current election process, which can take six weeks or longer. The bill would maintain the existing right to a union vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board if one-third of the workers ask for a federally sponsored election," Reports Diane Stafford in the KANSAS CITY STAR.

The rhetoric surrounding the debate over the Act is reminiscent of great labor battles of the past. There are charges of a greater potential for intimidation on both sides. Opponents of the bill call it nothing less than "Un-American," asserting that the protection of a secret ballot would be removed and leave those who don't support the union vulnerable to pressure. Proponents counter that it is "critical to restore worker power, rebuild the middle class and build long-lasting, sustainable and broadly shared prosperity in the economy" and cite studies which suggest that the more formal process of requesting a NLRB election allows employers to take steps to intimidate union supporters. (see Cornell University Scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner) The battle looks likely to be a tough one: THE NEW YORK TIMES reported on January 8, 2009, that groups against the measure are planning a multi-million dollar ad campaign to discredit the legislation.

Lines on the bill are not simply drawn on party lines. Read the arguments below and then tell us what you think on the blog.

My Party Should Respect Secret Union Ballots," George McGovern, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, August 8, 2008:

"I am concerned about a new development that could deny this freedom to many Americans. As a longtime friend of labor unions, I must raise my voice against pending legislation I see as a disturbing and undemocratic overreach not in the interest of either management or labor.

The legislation is called the Employee Free Choice Act, and I am sad to say it runs counter to ideals that were once at the core of the labor movement. Instead of providing a voice for the unheard, EFCA risks silencing those who would speak."
THE NEW YORK TIMES stated in an OP-ED in favor of passage that:
The first and biggest test of Mr. Obama's commitment to labor, and to Ms. Solis, will be his decision on whether or not to push the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009. Corporate America is determined to derail the bill, which would make it easier than it has been for workers to form unions by requiring that employers recognize a union if a majority of employees at a workplace sign cards indicating they wish to organize...The measure is vital legislation and should not be postponed. Even modest increases in the share of the unionized labor force push wages upward, because nonunion workplaces must keep up with unionized ones that collectively bargain for increases. By giving employees a bigger say in compensation issues, unions also help to establish corporate norms, the absence of which has contributed to unjustifiable disparities between executive pay and rank-and-file pay.
Proponents of the EFCA lost a vote in late March 2009, when Republican Senator Arlen Specter reversed himself on support for the act, citing the bad economy. This leaves the law without any Republican votes in the Senate. ("Specter pulls back support of card check law," THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, Josh Drobnyk, March 25, 2009)

Additionally, Starbucks, Costco, and Whole Foods have teamed up to push a "third way" approach to changing laws covering unions. The three big employers have formed The Committee for Level Playing Field. They say their plan is a workable compromise:
  • It would guarantee the right of management to require a secret ballot and a fixed time period for the secret-ballot election.
  • Management would be permitted to initiate a decertification campaign through a secret ballot election.
  • Unions and management would be able to access employees during non-working hours concerning the issue of whether to form a union. The group also says that the proposal would provide expedited enforcement for serious and pervasive violations of law by labor and management and stricter penalties for serious and pervasive violations, including the penalty of mandatory injunctions when appropriate.
  • Unlike the Employee Free Choice Act, the proposal wouldn't include binding arbitration.
Additional Opinion Resources
The Living Wage Campaign

Over the past decade and a half some groups have turned their attention away from traditional union drives toward campaigns designed to aid workers whether organized or not — most visibly through the "living wage" movement. Living wage proponents argue that the national minimum wage is too low to cover basic necessities, and want a wage and benefits package that takes into account the area-specific cost of living and the basic expenses involved in supporting a family. In communities across country there are now more than 100 living wage statutes on the books. The debate continues over whether the laws encourage or discourage employment on the low end of the economy.

>More about living wage campaigns

Related Media:
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Also This Week:
Digging deep into the roots and evolution of the American conservative movement, Sam Tanenhaus talks with Bill Moyers about why he believes that conservatism is dead and how it might yet come back to life. Tanenhaus is the editor of both THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and the Week in Review section of the TIMES.


With public support for labor unions at its lowest point in 70 years, Bill Moyers talks with experts Bill Fletcher, co-author of SOLIDARITY DIVIDED: THE CRISIS IN ORGANIZED LABOR AND A NEW PATH TOWARD SOCIAL JUSTICE and Michael Zweig, director of the Center for the Study of Working Class Life at SUNY Stony Brook, about the state of organized labor.

Explore some of the crucial issues facing America's workers and priorities for reform. Topics include challenges faced by younger workers, workplace rules, The Employee Free Choice Act, the living wage movement and more.

View a collection of JOURNAL reports on the effect of the downturn on the homefront.

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