By Kelly Mayhew
There’s been a lot of discussion of economic inequality recently in wake of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
As many economists have observed, American workers are more educated and more productive than ever and are driving record profits for corporations while they’re seeing their wages stagnate or decline as the wealth accumulated by the top 1% of earners has skyrocketed. Robert Reich has been on a crusade to emphasize the historic importance of our current economic inequality crisis, and people like Paul Krugman have noted that we are living in “a new gilded age.”
Here in San Diego we are in the midst of seeing this writ large as the battle to raise the minimum wage rages on with a community-labor alliance advocating for the rights of low-wage workers while the city’s economic elite push back hard.
What’s different about our era from earlier ones, however, is that the labor movement is not rising but faces a continual assault on multiple levels. The number of American workers in unions is now down to around 12% of the total workforce with only 7% or so in the private sector. The direct result of this is the decline in the American worker’s power in the workplace and the political arena.
As Doug Henwood notes in his review of Piketty’s seminal study: “The core message of this enormous and enormously important book can be delivered in a few lines: Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no ‘natural’ mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency. Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. And Thomas Piketty has two centuries of data to prove his point.”
The only political mechanism American workers have ever had to address this is the labor movement and that is why most Americans should care about the fate of labor, whether they are in a union or not. Thus, just as the American labor movement is under the fiercest assault it has seen in a century, it has never been more necessary.
Recently the AFL-CIO has called on labor to open its doors and look to new community-labor alliances in an effort to build a new movement to fight the growing inequality faced by most Americans even as labor’s numbers are declining. But this effort to reach out beyond labor’s doors is not a new idea if you know your labor history.
Unfortunately however, most Americans learn very little about the history of working people and/or unions and their complicated relationship with the Civil Rights and other social movements, not to mention the crucial role played by workers in the democratization of American culture and politics. This is particularly true about many of the journalists and pundits who shape the public’s views on issues of labor and economics. But there are ways to fill in those educational gaps with regard to labor.
Want to learn more about the role of working people in American history and what rights American workers have or lack in the workplace?
Register now for classes in City College’s Labor Studies Program—the only Labor Studies program in San Diego County.
On Tuesday evenings from 6:55-10 in AH 421 (CRN 00222) you can take Labor Studies 100: American Labor Movements with Dr. Jim Miller, American Federation of Teachers Local 1931’s Political Action/Community Outreach Vice President, San Diego Free Press columnist, co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, and author of Flash and Drift among others.
Labor Studies 100 tells the story of the folks who brought you the weekend from the colonial era, the Revolutionary War, the Progressive era, and the Sit-Down Strikes to the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers, and the neoliberal assault on labor and the rise of inequality in our present moment.
On Thursday evenings from 6:55-10:00 in AH 419 (CRN 87783) you can enroll in Labor Studies 102: Labor Law with San Diego Education Association’s Rafal Dobrowolski, who holds a Master’s Degree in Labor Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has been active in a number of different unions and social movements.
Labor Studies 102 is a practical study of labor law and is designed for all members of the community interested in workers’ rights on the job.
Fall classes begin August 18 2014. Both classes are located in the new Arts and Humanities building on C Street between 15th and 16th. To register, go to: http://studentweb.sdccd.edu/ or call (619) 388-3400. For more information you can contact me, Dr. Kelly Mayhew, Labor Studies Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.