Forty five million in poverty in the US

By Andre Damon
17 September 2014

Forty-five million people are living in poverty in the United States, according to figures released Tuesday by the Census Bureau. The 2013 Income and Poverty in the United States report found that the number of people in poverty remained at a record high last year, while the income of a typical household remained stagnant. According to the Census figures, the median household income in the US has fallen 8 percent since 2007.

The continuing prevalence of mass poverty and the stagnation of the incomes of working people are an expression of the fact that the so-called economic “recovery” touted by the Obama administration is a recovery only for the financial elite: corporate profits hit a record in the year covered by the report, while stock values increased by a third that year, fueled by the Federal Reserve’s money printing operations.

The White House praised the report, saying that it showed that “key indicators of poverty and family income improved.” In reality, the report is yet another confirmation of the fact that there has been no real improvement in the living conditions of working people.

The report follows the publication earlier this month of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, which found that between 2007 and 2013, the income of a typical US household fell 12 percent. According to the survey, the median American household now earns $6,400 less per year than it did in 2007.

The poverty threshold, which currently stands at $23,624 for a family of four with two children, or $12,119 for an individual without children, is abysmally low. Using this measure, the latest Census Bureau report finds that the official poverty rate fell by .5 percent, to 14.5 percent, the first fall in the poverty rate since 2006. While the poverty rate fell, the total number of people in poverty remained at the same level as the year before.

One in five children in the US were in poverty in 2013, and the child poverty rate stood at 19.9 percent in 2013, down from 21.8 percent the year before.

The stagnation of real wages shown in 2013 is part of an ongoing decline in workers’ wages. According to an analysis of the Census figures by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the inflation-adjusted median earnings for a man in 1973 was $52,419, higher than the present figure of $50,033. According to the EPI’s data, “the decline in median non-elderly household income from 2000 to 2013” was $7,337, or 11.2 percent.

According to the Census figures, while the Gini coefficient, a measure of social inequality, increased 4.9 percent from 1993 through 2012, it remained largely unchanged in 2013.

The report also noted that there were 42 million people in the United States, or 13.4 percent of the population, who did not have health insurance in 2013. The share of the population that does not have health insurance dropped as a result of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which imposes fines on those who do not have health insurance.

As a result of the 2008 economic crash, a growing number of people avoided getting their own homes or apartments, or moved back in with their parents or acquaintances. According to the Census Bureau, such “shared households” are defined as “those that include at least one ‘additional’ adult: a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is not the householder, spouse or cohabiting partner of the householder.” The number of such households had increased from 17 percent to 19 percent by spring 2014, according data referred to in the Census report.

The Census figures do not reflect a series of drastic cuts to social spending that were implemented in 2013, including elements of the “sequester” budget cuts, $11 billion in cuts to food stamp benefits, and the expiration of federal extended jobless benefits at the end of the year. These draconian spending cuts together removed tens of millions of dollars in income from the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population.

The Census report follows the publication of a number of social indicators showing growing poverty and social distress in the US. In April, Feeding America published its annual report on hunger, which showed that 49 million people, or 16 percent of the population, lived in food insecure households in 2012, up from 11.1 percent in 2007. The level of food insecurity among children is even worse, affecting 16 million children, or 21.6 percent of all children in the US.

The collapse of workers’ incomes and the growth of inequality express the basic response of the ruling class to the economic crisis that erupted in 2008. The Obama administration seized upon the economic downturn in order to carry out wage-cutting in the auto companies it restructured, incentivize companies to slash workers’ health care benefits through the Affordable Care Act, and slash billions of dollars in social programs.

As a result of these policies, the top 1 percent of income earners in the US took in 95 percent of all income gains between 2009 and 2012.

We are the authors and actors of our own history

by Laurence Cox on September 10, 2014

Post image for We are the authors and actors of our own historyAs neoliberalism struggles to find a long-term survival strategy, a new book explores how Marxism can contribute to the praxis of contemporary movements.

By Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen.

Neoliberalism is in crisis. Some of the elements of this are fairly obvious: the financial crisis of recent years and elites’ inability to chart an effective strategy for long-term profitability; the decline of US geopolitical hegemony, most visibly in its one-time backyard of Latin America and the strategically central Middle East and North African region; a legitimacy crisis around surveillance and military intervention more broadly; severe problems with making the WTO, FTAA and other such arrangements actually produce the intended results; the EU’s increasing inability to secure mandates for austerity in referenda or elections; not to mention the medium-term threats to fixed assets (and supporters) caused by climate change.

To say that neoliberalism is in crisis is not to say that it is powerless, or that it is not causing immense suffering across the world in many different ways. It is to say that — like all previous forms of capitalism before it — it is running out of time: it is ceasing to work for many of the groups which were once central for the alliance that constructed neoliberal hegemony; it is failing to chart a survival course for capitalist elites; and it is struggling to manage everyday problems. Coercion, however terrifying we may find it, is not a viable long-term strategy.

It is important to say this in the face of arguments which — rightly horrified or terrified by the realities of neoliberalism — ascribe omnipotence or inevitability to its continuation. Watching the screen (increasingly of smartphones or tablets rather than TV or newspapers), transfixed by the daily dose of violence and a sense of powerlessness, such arguments remain caught within their own local realities — taking the last couple of decades as defining of human existence, but also taking what is available to an increasingly narrow mediasphere as defining What Is Happening. Put another way, they constitute elaborate rationalizations of personal experience without being able to stand outside the structures that constitute that experience, either historically or in terms of reading the world from below, in terms of popular struggles.

In our new book We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism we write:

Premature Obituaries and Zombie Neoliberalism

Almost as soon as any new movement from below appears on the radar screen of the North’s elites, writers proclaim it dead, irrelevant, or past its prime. This has been so for the Zapatistas (now celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their uprising), for the global ‘movement of movements’ against neoliberalism (despite events in Latin America), for the movement against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (despite everything) and increasingly for anti-austerity movements. In part, of course, these are deliberate attempts to write off movements by apologists for our current regimes: to misquote Howard Zinn (1999), we might wonder why it is necessary to proclaim movements dead again and again.

Another reason for this obituary-writing lies in how journalists, academics, literary writers and so on are trained. There is a natural tendency to defend one’s own hard-won intellectual capital: where this consists of a particular way of writing about how things are at present, and of ‘business as usual’ tendencies into the future, anything which suggests that there may be more to the present than meets an eye focused on routines, and that the future may not yet be written in stone, will be unwelcome. There is also a need to have something to say about everything, and to appear to know something about any possible subject of conversation (‘relevance’, for a very media-oriented value of the word). Given the complexity of reality and how little of it anyone can know (not to mention how pressures for intellectual productivity squeeze the time available for exploring new areas of knowledge), what is most needed is a stock of ready-made dismissals for whatever falls outside one’s own sphere of interest and actual knowledge (see Sotiris 2013).

For us, the most interesting part of the obituary-writing process is that engaged in by movement activists themselves. This too has multiple roots: frustration and despair, a sense of having lost particular internal or external battles, a desire to argue for different strategies (a return to trade union struggles, a return to communities, the construction of utopias), and the belief that today’s movement is the strongest available argument for one’s own flavor of theory. Perhaps the most significant, though, is the experience this chapter addresses, of stalemate: of having made huge efforts, having moved further in recent years than most of us would have thought possible in the 1990s, and yet of having in some terms achieved so little.

The first chapter of We Make Our Own History discusses how theory can grow out of activist experience and what this means for “movement-relevant theory”, identifying Marxism as one such form of movement theorizing which activists can “repair, reuse and recycle”. We then ask how a Marxism oriented to the praxis of movements and communities can help activists change the rules of the socially constructed game which academic social movements research often wants to confine them to.

The central chapter rethinks Marxism as a theory of social movements, including both movements from below and the agency of the powerful and wealthy — the social movements from above whose weight we daily feel on our backs. We go on to use this framework to explore how movements from above and below have structured the historical development of capitalism, in its many changing forms. Finally, we discuss movements from below against neoliberalism and ask how they can win: what it means, in practice, to make another world possible.

Laurence Cox directs the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and co-edits the social movements journal Interface. He is active in a wide range of movements and has published Marxism and Social Movements (2013) and Understanding European Movements (2013).

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Bergen. His research focuses on social movements in the Global South. He is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India (2012) and co-editor of Social Movements in the Global South (2011) and Marxism and Social Movements (2013).

Report to G20 outlines jobs and wages catastrophe

By Nick Beams
11 September 2014

A report prepared for a meeting of G20 labour ministers held in Australia yesterday and today has highlighted the ever-worsening jobs market in all the advanced capitalist countries and the ongoing decline in the share of wages in national income.

Authored by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank, the report said economic growth would “remain below trend with significant downside risks for the foreseeable future.”

Low growth would continue to dampen employment prospects and lead to widening income inequality across the G20 countries, which collectively account for 85 percent of global gross domestic product.

The report said the jobs gap would “remain substantial” in several G20 countries “at least” until 2018, without giving any indication of what would happen thereafter. In other words, the worsening economic conditions that set in after the global financial crisis of 2008 have become a permanent trend.

Unemployment continues to remain at historically high rates, and almost one-third of those out of a job are long-term unemployed, compared to a quarter before the financial crisis.

A vicious economic circle has set in. Lower economic growth has led to the loss of jobs and falling real wages, while, as the report notes, in the “advanced” G20 economies a “large jobs gap and stagnating wage income have constrained both consumption and investment as sources of aggregate demand,” thereby leading to lower growth or outright stagnation.

In addition, over the past 15 years, there has been an ongoing redistribution of wealth from wages to profits. According to the report, an index of real wages rose by only 5 percentage points from 1999 to 2013, while labour productivity over the same period increased by 17 percentage points in the advanced G20 economies.

After noting that the trend began before the crisis of 2008–2009, the report said it had “grown wider since 2010, as wages in many advanced economies continue to stagnate while productivity has recovered in the group as a whole.” What it called the “moderation” in wage growth was greater than would have been predicted by the relationship between unemployment and wages before the crisis.

The redistribution of wealth was underscored by another series of statistics, which showed the long-term decline in the labour share of national income over the past four decades. In Spain the labour share had fallen by 16 percent, Italy 15 percent, the United States 11 percent, and Australia and Germany around 5 percent.

“The cumulative, long-term decline in labour share has been substantial and widespread and has been widely seen as a structural problem,” the report stated.

While consumption spending by workers and their families constitutes the largest portion of aggregate demand, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, investment is the real driving force of the economy. But investment “has been below pre-crisis levels at the global level, and particularly so in advanced economies, with important negative consequences for job creation.” This is despite historically low interest rates and the recovery of profitability in some countries and industries.

The report echoed a theme that is becoming common in such analyses: inequality is a contributing factor to lower economic growth. “Extensive evidence shows that high levels of income inequality tend to reinforce themselves, reducing social mobility and thus affecting long-term potential growth,” it stated.

What did the report propose be done to change the situation? Nothing. “There is no magic or universal formula for creating productive, quality jobs,” it declared. While calling for “interventions,” it insisted that they had to be “feasible in country circumstances and fiscal space and need to be aligned with country priorities and social expectations.”

What this means in practice is that any government action must be in accord with the demands of the banks and finance capital, which have dictated the policies carried out in the six years since the financial crisis erupted and created the present conditions.

The only word of caution was a reference to an analysis by the ILO of “recent episodes of social unrest” which found that the most important determinants of such occurrences are “weak economic growth and a rising unemployment rate.”

Financial Times economics commentator Martin Wolf also took up this issue in a column published earlier this week. He pointed out that in the second quarter of this year, real domestic demand in the eurozone was 5 percent lower than in the first quarter of 2008 and that since 2008 nominal (in money terms) demand had risen by a mere 2 percent.

Wolf too sounded a warning, saying that the European Commission “needs to take a stand for common sense and growth, instead of insisting on misery yet again.”

“This is not just a matter of economics,” Wolf added. “The capacity of the peoples of member states to tolerate high unemployment and deep slumps has been impressive. But it cannot be unlimited.” Unless action was taken, there would be a “populist reaction.”

Neither the analysis provided to the G20 nor the entreaties of columnists like Wolf for “common sense” policies is going to produce a change of direction.

The ruling corporate and financial elites are locked into a system in which profit accumulation—the lifeblood of the capitalist economy over which they preside—no longer operates according to the logic of the past, in which new investment led to increased employment, higher wages and expanding markets, fuelling further investment.

Rather, profits now increasingly depend on the endless supply of ultra-cheap cash by the central banks to finance parasitism and speculation on the one hand, coupled with savage cost-cutting and the driving down of the social position of the working class on the other.


US Is an Oligarchy Not a Democracy, says Scientific Study

Published on

Common Dreams

In America, money talks… and democracy dies under its crushing weight. (Photo: Shutterstock)

study, to appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, finds that the U.S. is no democracy, but instead an oligarchy, meaning profoundly corrupt, so that the answer to the study’s opening question, “Who governs? Who really rules?” in this country, is:

“Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But, …” and then they go on to say, it’s not true, and that, “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened” by the findings in this, the first-ever comprehensive scientific study of the subject, which shows that there is instead “the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

To put it short: The United States is no democracy, but actually an oligarchy.

The authors of this historically important study are Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, and their article is titled “Testing Theories of American Politics.” The authors clarify that the data available are probably under-representing the actual extent of control of the U.S. by the super-rich:

Economic Elite Domination theories do rather well in our analysis, even though our findings probably understate the political influence of elites. Our measure of the preferences of wealthy or elite Americans – though useful, and the best we could generate for a large set of policy cases – is probably less consistent with the relevant preferences than are our measures of the views of ordinary citizens or the alignments of engaged interest groups. Yet we found substantial estimated effects even when using this imperfect measure. The real-world impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater.

Nonetheless, this is the first-ever scientific study of the question of whether the U.S. is a democracy. “Until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions [that U.S. policymaking operates as a democracy, versus as an oligarchy, versus as some mixture of the two] against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.” That’s an enormous number of policy-issues studied.

What the authors are able to find, despite the deficiencies of the data, is important: the first-ever scientific analysis of whether the U.S. is a democracy, or is instead an oligarchy, or some combination of the two. The clear finding is that the U.S. is an oligarchy, no democratic country, at all. American democracy is a sham, no matter how much it’s pumped by the oligarchs who run the country (and who control the nation’s “news” media). The U.S., in other words, is basically similar to Russia or most other dubious “electoral” “democratic” countries. We weren’t formerly, but we clearly are now. Today, after this exhaustive analysis of the data, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” That’s it, in a nutshell.

The collapse of US household income

9 September 2014

The US Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances, released last Thursday, documents a devastating decline in economic conditions for a large majority of the population during the so-called economic recovery.

The report reveals that between 2007 and 2013, the income of a typical US household fell 12 percent. The median American household now earns $6,400 less per year than it did in 2007.

Much of the decline occurred during the “recovery” presided over by the Obama administration. In the three years between 2010 and 2013, the annual income of a typical household fell by an additional 5 percent.

The report also shows that wealth has become even more concentrated in the topmost economic layers. The wealth share of the top 3 percent climbed from 44.8 percent in 1989 to 54.4 percent in 2013. The share of wealth held by the bottom 90 percent fell from 33.2 percent in 1989 to 24.7 percent in 2013.

Disparities in income have increased along with the growing monopolization of wealth. While the annual income of a typical household plunged 5 percent between 2010 and 2013, the income of the top tenth of income earners grew by 10 percent, with even bigger gains for the wealthiest households.

The report presents other indicators of social regression. It notes that the percentage of the population that owns homes fell from 67.3 percent to 65.2 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Between 2001 and 2013, the share of young families burdened by education debt nearly doubled, from 22.4 percent to 38.8 percent. Over the same years, the percentage of these families with more than $100,000 in debt grew nearly tenfold, from 0.6 percent to 5.6 percent.

The Fed report irrefutably demonstrates that the claims of a broad economic recovery are fraudulent. Wall Street and the financial aristocracy, it is true, have never had it so good. But the conditions of most working people continue to worsen.

It should come as no surprise that the establishment media has buried the Fed report. The politicians of both big business parties, Democrats as well as Republicans, have likewise kept silent.

The Fed report is only the latest in a series of studies on the continuing growth of poverty and social inequality in the midst of what is billed as a recovery from the crash of 2008. They point to the fact that social tensions in America are at the breaking point. There is mounting social opposition, as reflected most recently in the events in Ferguson, Missouri following the police murder of an unarmed teenager. And the response of the ruling class, as seen in the police-military crackdown against protesters in Ferguson, is mass repression.

Meanwhile, Obama has launched another indefinite war in the Middle East and is all but inciting war with Russia in Eastern Europe, threatening a nuclear catastrophe.

Yet in the midst of this explosive situation, national elections, to be held in only eight weeks, are evoking virtually no public interest. The Center for the Study of the American Electorate noted that turnout in the 2014 state primaries was down by 18 percent from 2010, hitting record lows. In Iowa, only 9.7 percent of the population voted in the primary election.

The upcoming congressional elections are projected to inspire a similarly low rate of participation.

Alongside the social polarization, what is taking place is a political polarization, which to date primarily finds expression in the passive form of alienation, abstention and disgust. Broadly speaking, American working people do not believe the elections will change anything. Their experience with the Obama administration, which promised “hope” and “change” and then continued and intensified the reactionary policies of its Republican predecessor, has begun to open up their eyes to the dead end of the two-party system.

There is a growing sense that more fundamental change is needed and the problems people face are rooted in the entire existing economic and political system.

This belief is vindicated by the refusal and inability of either party to address any of the critical social questions confronting working people—unemployment, falling wages and income, school closings, the gutting of pensions and health benefits. They have nothing to propose except more austerity and more repression.

The Federal Reserve published its report one day before the Labor Department released dismal jobs figures for the month of August, showing that the US economy added fewer jobs last month than in any other month this year. It further showed that 268,000 people dropped out of the labor force, bringing the US labor force participation rate to its lowest level in four-and-a-half decades.

The response of the Obama administration and the Democrats, in the form of the weekly White House address given last Saturday by Vice President Joseph Biden, only highlighted the unbridgeable chasm separating the government from the working class.

Biden hailed the jobs report as a vindication of the administration’s policies. It was, he declared, “another reminder of how far we’ve come.” Biden presented Obama and himself as fighters for the American “middle class”—that mythical construction of capitalist politicians and academics who are petrified of acknowledging the existence of the working class.

He made, of course, no mention of the Fed report on the impoverishment of large sections of the population and further enrichment of the financial oligarchy. Nor did he speak of the savage cuts in food stamps or termination of long-term unemployment benefits under his and Obama’s watch.

The alternative presented to working people as their “democratic” choice is the Republicans, who are even more naked and ruthless in their promotion of the reactionary interests of the corporate-financial elite.

It is necessary to take stock and draw the appropriate conclusions. There is no way forward for workers and young people outside of a clean break with the existing political parties.

Andre Damon

The Obama administration and labor

3 September 2014

American workers had little to celebrate on Labor Day, which is celebrated in the United States on the first Monday in September. Six years after the Wall Street crash of 2008, inequality is at record levels and workers confront mass unemployment, declining wages, growing poverty and a general deterioration in their conditions of life.

The capitalist system is in deep crisis. Detroit, once the center of American manufacturing, is in bankruptcy, with court proceedings on a corporate-dictated “plan of adjustment” resuming yesterday. Over the prior week, some 900 of the city’s households were cut off from one of the basic necessities of life—water. Social tensions are mounting, as revealed in the eruption of protests last month over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, followed by a crackdown that placed the city under de facto martial law.

Reports on social conditions reveal an economic disaster for the majority of the population. The New York Times reported Sunday that the type of wholesale wage theft prevalent before the creation of the industrial unions has once again re-emerged at major American companies. Yesterday, Gallup reported that the typical worker employed full-time now works 46.7 hours, nearly an entire additional eight-hour day, rendering the 40-hour workweek a relic of the past.

The country is riven by class divisions, with the government functioning as an arm of the corporations and banks. The unbridgeable chasm between the experiences of working people and the political establishment was exemplified by the Labor Day speeches given by President Barack Obama in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Vice President Joseph Biden in Detroit, Michigan.

The ritualized Labor Day demonstrations and speeches are themselves political non-events for most of the population. They are organized by trade unions that are deeply discredited, with the aim of keeping working class opposition bottled up within the capitalist two-party system. This year they had the particular function of attempting to hustle votes for the Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm elections.

Obama, in comments dripping with complacency and indifference, boasted of his economic “recovery” and praised the record surge in stock prices and corporate profits. “It’s a good thing that corporate profits are high,” he said. “I want American businesses to succeed. It’s a good thing that the stock market is booming.”

The fact that a president sees fit to applaud, at an event supposedly dedicated to “labor,” the parasitic enrichment of Wall Street is indicative of the state of American politics. His comments were directed at reassuring Wall Street that there would be no let-up on attacks on jobs and social programs, no end to free cash from the Federal Reserve, and no change in a policy that has given the corporate criminals who crashed the economy in 2008 a free pass.

Speaking in Detroit, Vice President Biden played a complementary role, engaging in empty, pseudo-populist rhetoric in an attempt to maintain the fiction that the Obama administration and the Democratic Party are somehow partisans of what they invariably refer to as the “middle class.”

Biden’s speech was a mind-boggling collection of internal contradictions—pretending to be indignant about the situation facing working people while acting as if the policies of the administration of which he is a part had nothing to do with it.

“Why did corporations used to shoulder 33 percent of the tax burden in America, and now they’re only shouldering ten percent?” asked Biden, who supports his administration’s plan to reduce corporate taxes from 35 to 25 percent.

“Why do CEOs now make 333 times more money than a line worker, when back when Reagan was president they made 25 times what the line worker made?” he asked, ignoring the fact that his administration blocked the imposition of any real restraints on the pay of executives of bailed-out banks and corporations.

“Why on earth has corporate productivity gone up eight times faster than your salaries?” he asked, skipping over the fact that the Obama administration imposed massive cuts in workers’ wages as part of its restructuring of the US auto industry.

Biden spoke about the “revival” of American manufacturing, particularly in the auto industry, concealing the fact that the restoration of a small percentage of the jobs wiped out in the course of decades of deindustrialization was entirely based on wage-cutting and speedup, which had dramatically narrowed the labor cost gap between American workers and those in Asia and Latin America.

Biden, speaking virtually within a stone’s throw of the ruins of auto plants that once employed tens of thousands of workers, made no mention of the Detroit bankruptcy or the shutoff of water to thousands of city residents. He and his administration fully support the bankruptcy, which is intended to serve as a model of austerity for the entire country.

He did allude to the destabilizing impact of rising social inequality. “The middle class is the reason why America, unlike any other nation… has been so stable, economically, politically and socially,” he declared. “As long as you believed that if you played by the rules you could make it—that’s the glue that held all this together.”

The ruling class is well aware of the growth of social anger and is haunted by its revolutionary implications. The “glue holding all this together” has evaporated. The response of the corporate and financial oligarchy, however, is not social reform policies, of which it has none to offer, but rather military-police violence. The crackdown in Ferguson last month, coming after the shutdown of Boston last year, is an indication of the methods the ruling class will use against social opposition from the working class.

Andre Damon

The True Meaning of Labor Day


For America’s workers, it’s a reminder of the struggles we have won—and those that lie ahead.

Photo Credit: Nic Neufeld /

To many Americans, Labor Day has become an important way to send off the slower pace of summer and usher in the hustle and bustle of fall. To our nation’s working families, this Labor Day means so much more.

It is an important moment to reflect on the courage of the working people who brought us Labor Day and the many working benefits we enjoy today. It is also a pivotal time to take stock of where our families, our economy, and our democracy are heading.

Today, America finds itself in a position of incredible challenge. Half of all Americans now make less than $15 an hour. Of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in America, eight are service sector jobs that pay $15 an hour or less.

Service sector jobs are the heartbeat of our economy and our communities, from the folks who care for the elderly and our children, to those who cook and serve our food, to those who clean and secure our offices. Moving our economy forward must include making service jobs into good jobs with wages that you can raise a family on.

That’s why this Labor Day, the American people are sparking a new movement, joining together for an economy and democracy that works for everyone.

Fast food workers have joined together to fight for $15 an hour. They have been joined by home care workers who are calling for $15 an hour for all caregivers. Just last week 27,000 Minnesota home care workers joined together in union, determined to raise wages and fight for quality home care for our seniors.

Working people in Seattle fought for and won a $15 minimum wage for 100,000 people, and other cities are poised to do the same. Across our nation adjunct professors, airport workers, security officers, hospital workers, Wal-Mart workers and other service sector workers are standing up and sticking together.

All told, 6.7 million workers have achieved better pay since fast food workers began striking less than two years ago, either through states or cities moving to raise minimum wages or through collective bargaining. These brave workers are building the momentum to raise wages and get our economy roaring again.

Yet the prosperity of our nation and growth of our economy depend not just on economic justice. A vibrant economy cannot exist without vibrant American communities steeped in the fundamental American principles of liberty and justice for all.

The taking of Mike Brown’s life in Ferguson, Missouri only weeks ago reminds us that social and economic justice must go hand in hand for America to thrive. To solve these issues, we need opportunities for all Americans to fully participate in our economy and improve the quality of life for their families.

That’s why we must also fix our broken immigration system and uphold and protect civil rights and democratic participation for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.

We must remember that America is a nation founded on the dreams of immigrants. Today the opportunity to achieve the American dream is jeopardized by a broken immigration system and a Congress that refuses to fix it. The time has come for us to free those immigrants who exemplify the promise of America from the shadows and bring them into the light of our economy and society without fear.

When working people stick together, we have the strength to ensure that both our democracy and our economy continue to grow and progress. When America’s working families rise, America rises.

This Labor Day, we have so much more to celebrate than just the end of summer. So many brave Americans are uniting to raise wages, raise our communities and raise America. Their efforts and successes are shaping up to be the largest, boldest and most inclusive movement by and for working people that modern America has even seen.

I believe in a rising America, where together we can create an economy that works for everyone and a democracy where everyone has a voice.

Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union.