By Juchan Rim, Tulane University
The Work in the South Conference—hosted by the Workplace Justice Project (WJP)—brought up many important topics of debate. The panels focused on the historic background of low-wage work since World War II, an overview of the southern labor market, and possible solutions to the challenges that low-wage workers face, which include wage theft, racial and employee discrimination, and little to no employee benefits, especially in the South.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and $2.13 for tipped workers, a wage that is barely enough to live on. The state of Louisiana, along with five other states, does not have a minimum wage; businesses with a net income of less than $500,000 that do not conduct interstate commerce do not have to comply to the minimum wage law. Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 has the 14c exemption which allows employers to base disabled workers’ wages off their productivity without complying with the federal minimum wage law. In the Bureau of Labor Statistics of 2013, about 1.5 million workers age 16 and over earned the federal minimum wage, while another 1.8 million earned below the federal minimum wage. Annual incomes depend on gender, age, and ethnicity; in 2011, men earned an average of $48,202 while women earned $37,118. Real median household income was the lowest among African Americans and Hispanics, at $32,229 and $38,624 respectively, while White and Asian Americans earned $55,412 and $65,129 respectively. How did this come to be?
In the period between the Civil War and World War II, black southerners experienced institutional racism; author Douglas A. Blackmon has called this period “the Age of Neoslavery”. At the end of the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, which abolished slavery with the exception of a punishment for a crime. However, southern states—whose economies (run mainly by cotton and slave labor) were devastated by the war—passed laws known as the Black Codes, which restricted African Americans’ freedom and forced them to work for little to no wages. One of the defining laws in these Black Codes was the vagrancy law, which allowed authorities to arrest unemployed free African Americans and force them into either county labor or private employment (convict-leasing system)—prisoners could be a source of revenue for southern states. Slaves were replaced with convicts and the working conditions were often brutal. The convict-leasing system became a source for economic development in the South.
By 1890, 19,000 people were imprisoned, 90% of whom were African American men. The growth of the Southern economy (industrialization and agriculture) helped the U.S rise to become a global economic leader. Employers in the south also relied on peonage (which was outlawed by Congress in 1867), and sharecropping (which required African Americans to take out loans with interest rates above 60%). This racial segregation and exploitation restricted the lives of southern African Americans, and prevented them from integrating into American life. Poverty was widespread, and institutional racism intensified. Racial segregation was upheld by the U.S Supreme Court in the separate but equal doctrine. By the turn of the century, peonage laws were enforced, but many of those found guilty were lightly punished or pardoned. In 1909, the NAACP was formed, which called for the reformation of the justice system and labor laws in the South. African Americans started joining the NAACP and labor unions. Finally, in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt’s attorney general Francis Biddle issued Circular No. 3591 as part of the war effort; this enforced the prosecution of those guilty of involuntary servitude (Slavery By Another Name).
The Wagner Act was passed in 1935, and is a labor law that guarantees basic rights to private sector employees to organize labor unions and engage in collective bargaining and collective action. It faced opposition by the Republican Party, and soon after World War II ended, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed, which restricted the activities and powers of labor unions, and prohibited radicals as union leaders. It was passed by Congress as a response to the Strike wave of 1946. Millions of veterans returned home after the war; Congress passed the G.I. Bill of Rights which encouraged home ownership and higher education. The U.S experienced a golden era of economic growth, with a boom in manufacturing and consumerism. The GDP grew, the middle class prospered, and labor union membership peaked in the 1950s. Military spending also soared because of the Cold War and Korean War. The economic boom came to an end in the early 1970s with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 (the U.S ended convertibility of the U.S dollar to gold), the 1973 oil crisis, the 1973-74 stock market crash, and the growing inflow of imported goods. The economy experienced stagflation during the 1970s. Income inequality also shot up drastically during this decade, a period known as the Great Divergence. Income inequality has been growing ever since and is correlated with the decline in labor unions, globalization, and privatization (Dezhao).
The outsourcing of jobs into the private sector has had very negative effects on the middle and working class communities. It has contributed to an increasing income gap; the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Income is shifting towards the wealthy, who tend to spend less than the middle class, slowing down economic growth. Profits are concentrated into private corporations and therefore are not used for public benefits and costs. The private sector is usually not as efficient as the government, as their main objective is to make money. This could cause an inferior quality of goods and services and cuts in essential services such as the water supply and electricity. This also means less transparency, wage cuts, and fewer work benefits. Throughout the years, private industries have fought to drive down the costs of their goods and services in order to maximize profitability. These industries focused on employing non-unionized workers and fought against private sector unions. This negatively affected the bargaining power and abilities of private sector unions. As a result, private sector unions have been declining in numbers (Moberg).
The decrease in labor unions, particularly private sector unions, is correlated with a decrease in wages and employee benefits; in 2012, union workers earned about 20% more than non-unionized workers. Labor unions have been less prominent today than in the past: union membership has halved since its peak in 1980. Currently there are 16.2 million labor union members. The majority of labor unions are public sector unions, despite the public sector having a lower number of workers than the private sector: 35.7% of government workers are unionized compared to 6.6% of private sector workers (“Union Members Summary”). The declining union membership is due to the changing market structure, public opinion on collective bargaining (particularly right-wing opposition), neoliberal policies (deregulation and privatization), economic globalization, and the power that employers and their privatized companies hold. In order to counter the effects of globalization, unions have been promoting labor regulations internationally; they have also opposed free trade agreements such as NAFTA and DR-CAFTA (Mary Jane). However, employers have employed restrictive strategies to reduce unionization, such as the illegal firing of union employees. Additionally, undocumented workers have almost no power or bargaining ability with their employers, and they are a huge part of the labor force in the United States.
The Workplace Justice Project (WJP) is a legal services clinic dedicated to native and immigrant low wage workers experiencing wage theft, harassment, discrimination, and safety violations in the workplace. The WJP’s weekly Wage Claim Clinic assists these low wage workers through workshops and seminars that guide them through the process of litigation for their unpaid wage claims. The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and its organizations Congress of Day Laborers and Stand with Dignity are post-Katrina organizations that support the poor, working-class African Americans and Hispanic immigrants, and organize communities against racial and employee discrimination. These organizations have given a voice for many minorities in New Orleans. Fast-food workers are also being represented by Fight for $15, an organization and movement to fight for a livable wage; on April 15, workers from around the nation will go on strike for better wages and workplace treatment. The Service Employees International Union, one of the largest labor unions in the United States, unites two million members from the U.S, Canada, and Puerto Rico, and is supporting Fight for $15.
Bolle, Mary Jane. “DR-CAFTA Labor Rights Issues.”Congressional Research Service Report for Congress Order Code RS22159. 8 Jul 2005.
Slavery By Another Name. Dir. Sam Pollard. Prod. Catharine Allan and Douglas Blackmon. By Sheila Curran Bernard. PBS, 2012. PBS. PBS. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
Dezhao, Chen. “The “Decline” of U.S. Economy: A Historical Comparison.” www.ciis.org.cn. China Institute of International Studies, 2006. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
Moberg, David. “Privatizing Government Services Doesn’t Only Hurt Public Workers.” Www.inthesetimes.com. In These Times, 6 June 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
“Union Members Summary.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.