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Restoring Pride and Fairness to American Jobs

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If the past is prologue, what can we say about the future of American jobs this Labor Day? Rosy is not a term that comes to mind.

Over the last 30 years we have seen workers' wages remain essentially flat while worker productivity skyrocketed by 75 percent. The Economic Policy Institute refers to this phenomenon as a "broad-based collapse of wage growth." For three decades, American workers have been producing more, but taking home paychecks that don't reflect their hard work. Consequently, we see the biggest pay gap in nearly a century.

If this trend holds for another 30 years, a grim future awaits the next generation of American workers.

But low-wage jobs don't have to be our future, and a new national poll conducted by Lake Research for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) shows that American voters want economic policies that address these inequities and seek to level the playing field for all Americans. Voters have a clear vision of what kind of economy they want. Voters understand the current economic situation is difficult, but they still believe that all jobs should pay a living wage, come with affordable, quality health care, and offer real retirement security. The poll, taken among 700 randomly-selected registered voters nationwide, shows:

  1. Eighty-seven percent of voters are very or somewhat concerned that America's future jobs will be low wage and low benefit -- including 65% who are very concerned
  2. Eighty-nine percent of voters agree that economic development should result in jobs with good wages and benefits that can support a family
  3. Eighty-four percent of voters agree that economic recovery means creating jobs with good benefits so people can afford to take care of their families, not low wage jobs with no benefits
  4. Eighty-four percent of voters favor requiring that government contracts go to companies that provide good paying jobs and benefits so that their employees don't end up on welfare programs like Medicaid and food stamps

At some point, we may see the restoration of high-paying manufacturing jobs, but in order to make jobs better for Americans now, we must look to the retail industry where immediate job growth will occur. A recent Department of Labor study confirms that the service sector will see the greatest job growth in the next decade. That means jobs for cashiers, clerks, and salespeople, among other service-sector positions.

Unfortunately, Walmart provides the predominant model for retail jobs today. Companies like Walmart pay low wages and benefits, and provide mostly part-time jobs--practices that lower standards for all retail workers. These companies claim that retail jobs should be "starter jobs," or "temporary jobs," when in reality these jobs are the future of our economy, and already employ millions of Americans of all ages, educational levels, and economic backgrounds. The number one job in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is retail salesperson--a position held by some 4.2 million people as of May 2009.

Most of the 1.3 million UFCW members work in the retail industry: at grocery stores, retail clothing stores, or other retail jobs. They know firsthand that union retail jobs can be stable, middle-class jobs--the kind that come with affordable, quality health care, wages that pay the bills, and real retirement security. But the vast majority of the growing retail workforce is non-union, making it more and more difficult for union members to raise wages and benefits throughout the industry. And the economy is only making things more difficult. As the New York Times noted recently:

With the country focused on job growth and with unemployment continuing to hover above 9 percent, comparatively little attention has been paid to the quality of the jobs being created and what that might say about the opportunities available to workers when the recession finally settles. There are reasons for concern, however, even in the early stages of a tentative recovery that now appears to be barely wheezing along.

For years, long before the recession began, job growth had become increasingly polarized in this country. High-paid occupations that require significant amounts of education and training grew rapidly alongside low-wage, service-type jobs that do not, according to David Autor, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology...The recession appears to have magnified that trend...

We can't let this trend continue. It's up to all of us, workers, shoppers, community members, and political leaders, to ensure that economic policies provide the opportunity to make all retail jobs good, career jobs. According to the Lake poll, a majority of voters believe job growth must be good job growth. In a number of polls Lake Research has found that a key economic frame for Americans is to have good-paying job no matter what the sector. To make that happen we must actively engage in the policy decisions that guide economic growth and job creation, and we must correct the current wage gap so that as worker productivity increases paychecks also increase.

The future of work, and the future of America, is in our hands. Clearly, American voters want and expect good jobs -- the kind that will keep families secure and America strong and competitive. If retail jobs are going to be a crucial part of America's future, then retail jobs need to be the kind of jobs that support American families and communities. They must be the kind of jobs that Americans can be proud to work at -- the kind that give more of us a shot at the American Dream.