As we head into Labor Day, the holiday created by unions in 1882 (in the face of fierce business opposition), I just finished listening to a quick NPR news segment on the state of the economy, which had anything but workers in mind.
The report was upbeat about the latest economic numbers, especially because the evidence seemed to indicate the economy wasn't overheating, that bugaboo of corporate chieftains everywhere. The piece wrapped up with a quote from some expert whose name I didn't catch, which NPR provided without comment:
"Hourly wage growth was just 1 percent, that was lower than expected. So overall things are good."
Since when are stagnating wages for working people "good?"
It's bad enough that the titans of the economy -- from CEOS and bankers to the Federal Reserve Board -- push a myopic agenda of maximizing profits for shareholders while strangling wages for the middle- and working-class. But when the media and general public starts thinking this is what "good" looks like, you know we're in trouble.
NPR's bizarre "what's good for Wal-Mart execs is good for everybody" philosophy is especially disturbing given the release this week of an eye-opening report by United for a Fair Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies on the country's fast-growing wealth gap:
The salaries of chief executives at the nation's 15 largest oil companies and 34 defense contractors have doubled since 2004, according to ... "Executive Excess 2006." [...]
Chief executives of the 15 top oil companies now average $32.7 million a year each, compared with $11.6 million for the chief executives of all big companies.
The average pay of CEOs at the 34 largest military contracting companies jumped from $3.6 million in the four years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, to $7.2 million in the four years since, the report said. [...]
The salaries of the CEOs has jumped as pay for workers has remained relatively static, or has even declined. The report says that since 1990 the overall CEO-worker pay gap has worsened considerably. The salary of minimum-wage earners has declined 9 percent after adjustment for inflation in the last 15 years, it said.
Here's how this plays out "on the ground." Remember all those supposedly shiftless low-income people in New Orleans, the ones that right-wing pundits savaged for being mired in a "culture of poverty" (and have in several cases celebrated their removal from the city)? As Prof. John Valery White, a law professor at LSU, shows in a great essay from the book After the Storm, 87 percent of the "inner-city" residents of New Orleans were employed -- they were just victims of the low-wage economy.
New Orleans is addicted to low-wage workers. In 2003 Louisiana was second in both the percantage of workers earning minimum wage (5.2 percent) and percecntage of workers earning less than $7.15 per hour (25.5 percent). ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center estimated in 2001 that forty-seven thousand workers in New Orleans (10 percent of the population) earned less than the $6.15 minimum wage that ACORN had proposed the city adopt.
If Katrina showed us anything, it's how poverty -- caused by low wages, not just unemployment -- shapes one's life chances: who can afford a car to evacuate, whose parents will die in the cost-cutting nursing home, who can rebuild their house, who stays in exile from family and friends because they don't have the means to return. Katrina showed it in concentrated form, but on issues from health care to environmental poisoning, poverty is a matter of life and death every day, everywhere.
So no, stagnating (and falling) wages aren't "good," and no respectable news outlet or expert should be allowed to say so without challenge.
Especially on Labor Day weekend.