I fell under the influence of the Rolling Stones as an early teenager and never left. The other day I was listening to Keith Richards grinding out his raspy lyrics to the song “Salt of the Earth,” which begins with the guiding line, “Let’s drink to the hard working people.” The Stones understood back in 1968 (and probably earlier) that workers should be appreciated and recognized, and it’s time the rest of us follow suit.
Workers, especially low wage workers, are much worse off today than they were 46 years ago when “Salt of the Earth” was released. According to a recent study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 40% of Americans now make less than the 1968 minimum wage. Had the federal minimum wage kept pace with gains in the country’s productivity since 1968, it would be $16.54 per hour as opposed to its current abysmal rate of $7.25 per hour. Put another way, the current federal minimum wage is 32% less in 2013 dollars than it was in 1968.
Corporate America’s concerted attack on unions coupled with anti-union legislation has also hurt workers. On average, unionized employees earn roughly $200 more per week than non-union employees. Today, unions represent a meager 7% of employees in corporate America, which is one-quarter the level in the 1960s. In 2013, the union membership rate was 11.3% compared to 20.1% in 1983. A 2011 study argues that the decline of organized labor accounts for about one-third of the rise in income inequality for men and one-fifth for women — even for people who never belonged to unions.
Our country’s historically high poverty rate, which currently exceeds 15% of the U.S. population, is due at least in part to the failure to recognize and support labor. Four out of every five Americans will experience near-poverty, unemployment or reliance on welfare programs at some point in their lives. In 2013, the poverty wage level for a single full-time worker with one child was $8.11, which is almost a dollar more than the current federal minimum wage.
I call on all of us to raise our glass to hard working people and take action to reverse these devastating trends. An increase of the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would raise the incomes for 17 million Americans. Federal law should follow California’s lead by imposing significant penalties against employers who fail to pay the requisite minimum wage or who fail to pay wages at all. Finally, unions should be lauded instead of vilified, especially in the burgeoning high tech industry which has always been hostile to unions.
Workers ARE the salt of the earth, and it’s time for the country to show them the respect and appreciation they deserve.