“Hot Labor Summer” might be the season’s most influential social movement.
That’s according to experts who joined the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s “State of Low Wage Work in America” briefing on Thursday, which illuminated the quickly evolving landscape of historically low-earning jobs in the U.S. With record unionization efforts, strikes and labor negotiations taking place across sectors like logistics, entertainment, retail, automotive and agriculture, the country’s lowest paid workforces are demanding higher wages, better benefits and greater attention to their personal wellbeing.
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Denise Diaz, deputy director for institutional advancement at Jobs with Justice, a worker rights organization that supports collective bargaining, employment security and a higher standard of living for workers, said 2023 will likely see record-breaking numbers of workers on strike. During the first half of the year alone, “the picket population has topped 300,000,” she said.
“We’ve seen this great resignation period, which was an awakening of working families in low-wage industries seeing that there was a demand for their labor,” Diaz said. Workers have since realized that they can leverage that demand for better wages, benefits and protections, and confront the forces perpetuating rampant income inequality.
“This is really a moment that is powerful and exciting for working people,” she said, pointing to major contract negotiations. Just this week, the Teamsters Union ratified a five-year, $30 billion contract with UPS, which will impact operations across the supply chain. “It’s influencing and extending the labor movement in new ways that are really raising the floor for these sectors, and giving them a seat at the table.”
“When we talk about good jobs, we are not just referring to fair compensation—we are talking about safe and healthy working conditions where workers feel like they’re respected for their contributions and are not in constant fear about the possibility of getting hurt on the job,” Marcela Montes, a program officer with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation who focuses on issues of family economic security, added. “The problem is that in this country, there’s a significant part of our workforce who are not in good jobs.”
“The idea that if you work hard enough and you will make it is simply not true for a big part of our population,” Montes said. About 44 percent of workers between the ages of 18 and 64 are earning low wages; the median hourly wage is $10.22 per hour, and median salaried workers earn about $24,000 per year. “According to that same body of research, these workers are more likely to face unsafe conditions, navigate unpredictable work schedules and face chronic financial insecurity and precarity.”
Not surprisingly, people of color make up a disproportionate number of low wage workers, with 30 percent of the Black workforce and 25 percent of the Latino workforce earning less than $15 per hour, compared to 15 percent of white workers, according to data from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “These workers are also concentrated in a few specific sectors that have historically benefited from the labor of people of color, and rely on low human capital costs to increase productivity and profits,” like agriculture, construction, food service, domestic work, retail, trade and hospitality, Montes added.
While the nation’s unemployment is at near-record lows, with jobless claims continuing to fall weekly, Montes said low unemployment rates aren’t necessarily an indicator of economic stability for most Americans. “Just being employed is not enough.”
“This Labor Day, we think it’s essential to focus on what’s needed to make all jobs safe and secure,” Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), said. The federation includes 26 grassroots worker groups and a broad community of unions, workers’ centers, health and safety professionals, academic specialists and non-profit advocates, and promotes training and support for worker organizing and advocacy.
“Every worker every day has a right to come home safely at the end of his or her shift, but I’ve got to tell you, we have a long way to achieve this goal,” Martinez said. Over 5,000 workers perish in sudden workplace incidents each year, including falling from high heights and getting crushed by machinery. Latino workers die at a rate 25 percent higher than the rest of the worker population, while Black workers see 11 percent higher death rates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). “For far too long, black and brown workers have been assigned to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs,” Martinez added. What’s more, 95,000 workers die annually from conditions associated with long-term exposure to workplace hazards including chemicals and toxic substances, and an average of 2.6 million non-fatal injuries and illnesses are reported to BLS each year by employers.
COSH is currently partnering with Public Citizen and other organizations to push Congress to require the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to issue an interim heat standard for workplaces. According to Martinez, only five states have implemented standards to protect workers from the effects of extreme heat, especially in the summer months.
Martinez pointed to retail, warehouse and dockworkers as communities subject to systems that create more hazards to health, safety and general wellbeing. “Many of these jobs are temp or gig jobs, so what happens is you have high turnover,” she explained. “There is a need to organize these communities a lot more,” and they are a current focus for COSH, she said. “Generally, there’s a trend happening where you see bigger exploitation of these industries, but nonetheless, these are areas where we are really moving forward.”
The increase in automation is “yet another obstacle in terms of creating good quality jobs,” she added. “We’re seeing there’s a replacement of workers” as corporations work to advance the speed and efficiency of their operations through automated technology and machinery.
“With the growth of automation, I think that we could have more conversations on not just on how automation will replace these workers, but the retraining of workers so that they are able to continue to be viable in our community and to have quality work,” Tanya Wallace-Gobern, executive director of the National Black Worker Center (NBWC) added.
“In order for automation to be progress, it has to improve the conditions for working people,” and companies must support the transition, Diaz added. “It shouldn’t just be about record-breaking profits.”