Karen Magee: America Gets a Raise

Sep 29, 2016

America’s workers finally got a raise.

In bright news for the U.S. economy, the Census Bureau recently reported that median household income climbed a hearty 5.2 percent in 2015 --to $56,500.  It represented the first real increase in workers’ wages since 2007.

Inflation-adjusted incomes rose sharply across the board. These broad income gains among America’s middle class are the clearest sign yet that, after a period of sluggishness, President Obama’s economic policies are working – and are working for more Americans.

Just as important, the official poverty rate declined from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent, the biggest one-year drop since the 1960s. And, the same Census Bureau report showed the share of Americans covered by health insurance also rose.  Today … thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act … just 9 percent of Americans are without health care.

That the American economy appears to be now lifting more boats – not just the ones owned by the rich – is welcome news.  I personally believe that this income growth corresponds with society’s growing acknowledgement that labor unions are vital to ensuring good wages and benefits for workers in all walks of life.

Through Occupy Wall Street and the Fight for $15 – and other successful campaigns led by organized labor here in New York and across the nation – unions and working people are sending a clear message to elected leaders and the economic elite:  “We deserve more.”

Workers are refusing to accept an economy in which the wages of the top 1 or 2 percent grow sharply, while the pay of everyone else stagnates.  Unions are fighting the Koch brothers, the Walton family and others for a more equal society and for the right to organize and form unions … and we are winning. A recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board allowing graduate students at private universities to form unions is just the latest example.

Winning, however, is different than won. Workers – and unions -- still have work to do. .

If we are going to create a more just society and build an economy centered on improving the lives of those who do the work, we need to grow the collective voice of workers.

Unions – and that collective voice -- are best positioned to lead the fight for greater public investment in education… greater college affordability… more accessible childcare… and retirement security guaranteed for all.

Unions – as the representative of working people – are well-equipped to address racial injustice and help tackle some of our most vexing social problems, while leading the fight for full employment for all.

The best way to make our voices heard is at the ballot box.

The final, critical element is political accountability.  Workers must hold those who seek office accountable for their policies by voting their interests.   

When workers enter the voting booth, they should be asking: Which candidate is going to build an economy that ensures that working people thrive and don’t have to live on crumbs after the wealthiest have eaten?

And, which candidate is going to build an economy that creates wealth only for a select few?

In this election year, strengthening the middle class and continuing the gains working Americans have made can only happen if working Americans make it happen.

Karen E. Magee is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.