Wednesday, July 2, 2008

WHAT DO WORKING-CLASS VOTERS WANT? A FAIR DEAL

Steven Greenhouse, TPM Cafe Workers of course recognize there is no magic wand to make unfairness disappear, but my interviews around the country convinced me that workers are nonetheless eager for political leaders to take some serious steps to ease the big squeeze.

Make jobs less stressful: For many Americans, wages are so low that they need to work two jobs, and many women with children under three are working fulltime to help their families make ends meet. As my book explains, all of this is making it devilishly difficult to balance job and family. The United States is the only industrial nation that doesn't guarantee paid sick days, paid maternity leave or even paid vacation to its workers.

The European Union guarantees a minimum of four weeks paid vacation per year for every worker, but a dismaying number of American workers told me that they receive absolutely no paid vacation and no paid sick days. If those workers miss two days' work to care for a flu- stricken child, they miss two days' pay--and as a result they perhaps won't have enough money to put food on the table. Many workers would like Congress to do what California and Connecticut are considering, mandate at least five sick days per year, and what California, New Jersey and Washington State have already done, guarantee paid maternity leave. Those are the type of family- friendly measures that both family-values conservatives and pro-worker progressives can support.

Increase opportunity and mobility: Many Americans who are not in the country club set worry that they won't be able to send their children to college, making it harder for their kids to move up in the world. Each year more than 400,000 high school graduates who are qualified to attend a four-year college do not go because they and their families can't afford it. Pell Grants used to cover 84 percent of the average annual cost at a state university in the 1970s; now they barely cover one third the cost. The college system is so skewed that at the nation's top 146 colleges, just 10 percent of the students come from the bottom half of households by income, and just 3 percent from the bottom quarter. . .

Ease the pain caused by globalization: Many workers rail against free-trade agreements because they see that globalization has destroyed many factory jobs and helped hold down wages, and they are searching for something, anything, to blame. While most workers recognize that globalization, offshoring and imports are inescapable facts of modern life, many would love to see the nation's political leaders do some high-visibility jawboning to discourage companies from reflexively moving jobs overseas, just as President John F. Kennedy once did some powerful jawboning to discourage the nation's steelmakers from raising their prices.

Many workers want better life preservers to prevent those hurt by globalization from being pulled under. Retraining programs for those who lose jobs to globalization are often poorly funded and poorly managed--and those programs are available only to laid- off factory workers, not laid-off software engineers and other white-collar workers whose jobs are offshored to India or other countries.

Here's a little-known, but highly disturbing fact--the nation has lost more than one-fifth of its manufacturing jobs since 2000. That's 3.7 million jobs that typically provide middle-class wages and benefits. Many laid-off workers want better retraining programs and stepped-up federal efforts to encourage the creation of good-paying manufacturing jobs, perhaps in future-oriented, green industries like producing hybrid cars.

Strengthen the social safety net: After the Great Depression dragged down millions of Americans, Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, corporate America and organized labor built an impressive safety net of good wages, good health insurance, good pensions and strong job security. But nowadays with job security disappearing and many workers losing health coverage and pensions, the safety net has been falling apart. Many workers complain that it is hugely unfair that they and their children often lose health coverage when they lose their jobs. Little wonder that two-thirds of Americans say they want Washington to enact universal health coverage, even if means increasing taxes.

Workers also voice considerable dismay about what is euphemistically called "the retirement security system." The solid pensions of old that provided monthly benefits after retirement are being replaced by 401(k)s, which often resemble a Swiss-cheese retirement scheme because one-fifth of eligible workers don't participate and many who do empty out their 401(k)'s when they lose a job-- they need money to live on. That leaves many workers with far too little savings to retire on.

The retirement savings system is broken and badly needs fixing. In The Big Squeeze, I recommend creating a new universal savings system, like Germany's, that would be built on top of Social Security and would guarantee virtually every worker enough to retire on.

From my interviews across the country, I got the sense that many working-class voters would be delighted if this year's presidential candidates adopted a great Republican's--Teddy Roosevelt's--version of the Fair Deal: "Our aim is to promote prosperity and then to see that prosperity is passed around."

Steven Greenhouse is the NY Times' labor correspondent whose new book is The Big Squeeze

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