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Workers: The Backbone and the Brains of Today's Economy!

10/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


One unanticipated fall out of the financial crisis is that now, lo and behold, Senator McCain has proclaimed "workers are the backbone of the economy." As somebody who studies how people work, I welcome his sudden awakening, even if he only got it half right. But workers are too smart to fall for empty rhetoric, especially when it is outdated. Today it is not just strong backs but also strong, creative minds that hold the potential for turning our economy around. So today's workers want concrete and common sense policies and actions that give them the opportunity and the power to use their knowledge, skills, and yes hard work to lead an economic recovery, for their families and for the nation. So let's go beyond the rhetoric and see what in fact McCain and Obama would do to empower workers in this way.

Let's start with the obvious: What will the candidates do to reverse the steady loss of jobs and earning power? McCain's jobs' policy is to reduce taxes on business to spur investment and innovation. This is the same trickle down economic rhetoric of the Bush Administration that has resulted in the lowest rate of job growth of any economic recovery in memory, the loss of over 600,000 jobs this year alone, and wages that leave workers no better off today than when Bush took office. Barack Obama proposes a middle class tax cut but doesn't stop there. He will take direct action to create 5 million new, good paying jobs by investing in critical industries such as renewable energy, infrastructure repair, and health care. Businesses benefiting from these investments will be held accountable for working in partnership with employees and labor representatives to put in place state-of-the-art training and work systems needed to drive innovation, productivity, and service quality.

Senator McCain has no strategy for improving workers' wages. In fact he has opposed increasing the minimum wage, is opposed to fixing labor law to give workers a real right to unionize, and would increase the cost of employer provided health insurance by eliminating the tax advantages of these plans. Senator Obama proposes increasing and indexing the minimum wage to inflation, and promises to fix America's broken labor law to restore workers' ability to form a union and to expand collective bargaining coverage and will support labor and management efforts to work together to once again get wages moving in tandem with productivity growth. That was what helped working families move into the middle class before and what can be done again if we put workers' knowledge, skills and ideas to work and then share the fruits of their efforts fairly.

John McCain says he wants to give working parents more flexibility to balance their work and family responsibilities but his way of doing so is to give employers the flexibility to substitute time off for overtime pay earned after 40 hours of work. This is a backhanded way of giving business a break on paying overtime rather than giving working parents the flexibility and financial support they need to meet their dual work and family responsibilities! Barack Obama takes a more direct approach--expand coverage of the Family and Medical Leave Act to the half of the labor force now excluded and provide seven days paid sick leave for all working parents.

John McCain says we should consolidate employment and training programs and reform unemployment insurance to catch up with the changing labor force. He is right to say these need to be done but can workers trust his rhetoric here when in the past he has opposed the extension of unemployment insurance to workers who exhaust their coverage and stood idly by while the Bush Administration cut funds for worker training and development? Barack Obama will not only overhaul and expand unemployment insurance coverage but also provide job training and health insurance coverage to all workers displaced by trade and renegotiate trade agreements to hold our trading partners accountable for meeting internationally recognized labor standards.

But there is also a more deep seated issue that workers should be asking of the candidates: What will you do to reverse the scandalous actions the Bush Administration has taken to undermine enforcement of the laws designed to protect worker rights on the job? I have worked with the people in charge of our key labor policy agencies for over thirty years, in both Democratic and Republican Administrations. These agencies are now in the worst shape I have ever seen. George Bush populated these agencies with a bunch of his know-nothing political cronies and business buddies. Most of the people he put in charge at the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board and other key regulatory agencies either don't believe in the laws they are sworn to enforce or lack the independence to do so. They can't say or do anything unless the White House approves. The next president will need to re-establish the credibility, independence, and trust of these agencies by putting professionals in charge who can earn the respect of workers, not to mention leaders of labor, business, women, and minority groups who deal with them on a day to day basis.

So if candidates continue to spout their rhetoric about workers being the backbone of the economy, let's press them to see if they truly understand the modern workforce, how to unleash its full potential, and to be specific about what they will in fact do to reverse the direction of work and employment policy of the past eight years. Doing so will show that workers are not just the backbone but also the brains that drive today's economy.