What of the working-class voters whose support is so
eagerly being sought by political candidates? What do they want from the
Steven Greenhouse, the New York Times' excellent labor
reporter, has lots of answers to that important question, based on hundreds of
interviews he had with working people in researching his new book, "The
Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker."
What workers want is nothing more -- and nothing less -
than "a fair deal," says Greenhouse. "Or at least a fairer
Many workers are certainly getting far less than that
these days, and they're angry and frustrated about it. Their incomes have been
declining steadily over the last eight years, at the same time that corporate
profits and worker productivity have been increasing by more than 15 percent.
The situation has been getting even worse for workers in
recent months, given the steady increase in food and fuel prices and increase
What's more, the incomes of the top one percent of
American households -- those whose incomes average more than $1 million a year
-- have more than tripled over the past quarter-century. That one percent of
Americans has more after-tax income then the incomes of the bottom 40 percent
of Americans combined.
The wages of many workers are so low they need to work
two jobs. And, as Greenhouse notes, many women with children of pre-school age
can't afford to stay home and care for them. They have to work full-time to
help their families make ends meet.
Workers find it "devilishly difficult" to
balance job and family. What they need is what workers in other industrial
nations get: guarantees of paid sick days, paid maternity leaves, and paid
vacations. Only a relatively few U.S. workers have those things.
That's but one of many needs workers want politicians to
meet. Greenhouse says they "want someone to battle for them as they
struggle with economic insecurity and income inequality."
Workers' specific demands include action to combat the
effects of globalization that has destroyed many American jobs and helped hold
down wages. Greenhouse says they "would love to see the nation's political
leaders do some high-visibility jawboning to discourage companies from moving
Workers are particularly concerned about the steady
decline in manufacturing jobs. Almost four million such jobs have disappeared
since 2000, fully one-fifth of the total. Workers also would like much better
retraining programs for those whose jobs are shifted abroad.
They'd also like increased opportunity and mobility,
mainly steps to make a college education affordable for their children. Every
year more than 400,000 high school graduates who are qualified to attend a
four-year college don't do so because they can't afford it. As a consequence,
says Greenhouse, "many working-class voters view America's promise of
equal opportunity as largely an empty promise."
Another item high on the working-class voters' wish list
is strengthening the nation's social safety net. It's been severely weakened by
the widespread loss of job security and by many workers losing health care
benefits and pensions. What's wanted most is an expanded Social Security system
that would guarantee virtually every worker enough for a secure retirement.
Many retirees now have far too little to support themselves.
That and the other wishes of working-class voters would
indeed help guarantee them the fair deal that's too long been denied them.
Politicians who want their votes would be wise to heed them. That could very
well determine whether they're elected to office.
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister