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Here’s why you’re working more for less

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As we approach the seventh Labor Day since the official end of the recession, workers in virtually all corners of the economy have seen the value of their paychecks shrink. Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to rise.

In fact, across all occupations, real hourly wage rates were 4% lower, on average, in 2014 than in 2009, according to the National Employment Law Project’s new analysis of detailed occupational wage and employment data.

Alarmingly, the lowest-wage occupations were hit the hardest over this period. Since 2009, real hourly wage rates have fallen by 5.7% for workers in jobs within the bottom fifth of the occupational wage distribution—and for some jobs, like restaurant cooks, who were paid a median wage of only $10.80 an hour in 2014 — wages were 8.9% lower in 2014 than in 2009. Real wages take into account cost of living increases; so, while costs for virtually everything else have gone up, wages have not.

Workers employed in higher-wage occupations are also being forced to do more with less. Between 2009 and 2014, customer service representatives, whose median hourly wage rate was $14.99 in 2014, saw a decline in their real wage rates of 7.4%. Registered nurses, an occupation with a median hourly wage of $33.16, experienced a decline of 2.6%.

Simply put, our economy isn’t working for the majority of working people—far too many of us who work for a living are having a tougher time making a living from work.

With this kind of broad-based erosion in pay for America’s workers, in spite of increases in productivity, it’s no surprise that growing numbers of workers are taking action to demand fair pay and decent working conditions.

In April, as fast-food workers in 230 cities nationwide walked off the job to demand $15 an hour and union rights, Brinks security guards spontaneously joined low-paid cooks and cashiers in Chicago on the strike lines.

Explaining why he was joining a strike line with low-wage fast-food workers, Brinks employee Mohamed Hasan told a local news reporter, “[T]hey’re being the same way, treated as us, no different. We just want our overtime back. Brinks took away our overtime. They took away a bunch of stuff from us and we feel we deserve much more.”

And even in sectors such as auto manufacturing that are generally assumed to be middle class jobs, workers are fighting for decent and fair pay. In fact, real wages for manufacturing workers fell from 2003 to 2013 by 4.4%. Latasha Irby, a worker at a plant in Selma, Alabama that supplies seats for Hyundai, told National Public Radio’s Scott Horsley during an interview, “You would think that if you’re working for an auto manufacturer, you would get more. I mean, we’re getting paid like Walmart wages.”

In the immediate term, we need to raise wages for workers across the economy to levels that will ensure families have enough in their pockets to sustain themselves and meet their basic needs. Our analysis shows raises to the minimum wage help stem the tide of declining wages. The lowest-paid workers within the bottom fifth of the occupational wage distribution experienced an average real wage decline of just 1.6%, less than half the average rate of 4%. This suggests that increases in state and local minimum wages over this period moderated losses for the lowest-paid.

There are a number of other tangible steps we can take, but fittingly as we approach Labor Day, perhaps most important for workers across all ends of the economy is to restore their freedom to form unions and bargain collectively. Workers represented by unions, especially women and people of color, consistently earn more than non-union workers.

But many often forget that even if we aren’t union members, our paychecks may benefit from the presence of strong unions. Ensuring that workers have a voice on the job not only improves their own wages and working conditions, it sets the stage for a strong and robust economy that’s good for all of America’s workers.

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