U.S. News & World Report: Make Work Great Again

Sometimes, what isn’t said is as important as what is said. Nowhere is that truer this election season than on jobs and the economy.

Donald Trump talks about winning the global competition by cutting taxes, regulations and the trade deficit, while Hillary Clinton promises a five-point plan to build an economy that works for everyone and not just those at the top.

There are stark differences, of course. But on some of the thorniest problems and most worrisome trends facing America’s workers and the U.S. economy, we’ve heard little from the candidates.

Our nation faces serious questions about the long-term direction of the economy and the role of work within it. How will the next president ensure that millennials and their children have the same opportunities for economic security and prosperity through work that previous generations have enjoyed?

For starters, he or she will need to focus on improving the quality of the jobs that will account for a large share of tomorrow’s workforce. More than half of the 30 occupations projected to grow the most by 2024 had median wages of roughly $35,000 or less in 2015. And 71 percent of jobs projected to be newly created among top-growing healthcare-related occupations paid even less.

Today, 42 percent of the workforce earn low wages of less than $15 per hour. That’s not likely to improve without appropriate interventions, given the continued hollowing-out of middle-income jobs and the rapid growth of low-paid jobs in the caregiving economy to meet the needs of aging baby boomers. How will the candidates ensure that these jobs are good, family-sustaining work?

The next president will face difficult questions about technology’s impact on the workforce. With Uber poised to pilot driverless cars in Pittsburgh in the near future, and Ford Motor Co. announcing plans to roll out fleets of the same within the next five years, we need to anticipate technology-related worker dislocations and put in place effective adjustment policies to prevent a situation that creates winners and losers.

Indeed, delivering long-term economic prosperity requires that we harness technological innovation to create better jobs, improve quality of life, and share resources equitably. Technology’s role in creating, shaping and managing work is no excuse for corporations to marginalize workers – for example, by joining in the troubling trend of firing permanent employees and contracting out the same jobs at lower pay with no benefits – and it can never justify corporations illegally misclassifying employees as independent contractors and avoiding labor and tax obligations.

The next president also will need to confront the growing challenges facing America’s system of employment-based benefits and social insurance protections. Today, just over one in four unemployed workers receive jobless aid; in some states it’s as low as one in 10.Only a fraction of workers who sustain on-the-job injuries or illnesses receive workers’ compensation; the share among low-wage workers is even smaller. The percentage of workers with employer-sponsored health insurance coverage has declined, and employment-based retirement security continues to erode.

Coupled with the sharp growth in contract and temporary and staffing agency employment between 2005 and 2015, the erosion of employment-based benefits means rising insecurity for growing numbers of workers. This is an immediate crisis that will worsen in the future, unless we begin now to firm up and expand basic benefits and insurance programs that are an essential safety net for workers and their families.

Finally, middle-class erosion and the rise of economic insecurity are directly linked to the gutting of union representation since the 1970s. The decline in union density is shocking: only 11.1 percent of U.S. workers belong to unions today (and just 6.7 percent of private sectors workers), compared with 34.8 percent of the workforce in 1954. Erosion of union representation has undermined and shrunk the middle class and expanded inequality. We will only restore balance to the economy and workplace, and preserve and strengthen it for the future, if we empower workers and revive their rights to join together and bargain over the conditions of their work.

If more than 30 years of failed tax and trade policies teach us anything, it’s that we can’t stumble our way to good jobs, or build a foundation for long-term economic security on campaign-trail talking points. For the sake of our children and their children too, the next president must drive a national conversation on the future of work and act with conviction to build an economy that delivers opportunity, security and prosperity to all – especially those most often left behind. This Labor Day, let’s make the unsaid said.

Christine Owens is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

Read the original op-ed at U.S. News & World Report.

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Christine L. Owens

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