As Samuel Gompers, a key 20th Century labor union leader once said, “The man who has millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants ten cents more a day,” (Gompers 59). Corporate greed was a contentious issue of the 20th century that continues to bleed into the 21st aswell. The United States’ (US) economy shifted from an industrial economy during the era of World War II to a services economy in the contemporary era of the Internet and globalization. But the United States has not experienced a major shift in the advancement of workers rights. There was however a detrimental state-sponsored shift in labor union influence, which ultimately left millions of Americans in the working class without union representation and vulnerable to the negligence of federal legislatures.
An infamous example would be President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Labor.” He encouraged rapid de-unionization across the United States because of his direct mass-firing 13,000 air traffic controllers and “appointment of three management representatives to the five-member National Labor Relations Board (McCartin).” This decision was executed to demonstrate how tough Regan could be, which ultimately impressed the Soviets. He neglected to advance workers rights at the expense of gaining respect from Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, so that US could pressure the Soviets into resolving the Cold War (McCartin). Reagan set the precedent for future presidents. Prior to his administration, “Republican presidents never had much regard for unions…no GOP president had dared to challenge [labor unions’] firm legal standing, [which was] gained through Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930s (Mesiter Par.2)” President Ronald Reagan’s administration halted the progression of workers right up to the 2008 Great Recession and election of President Barack Obama. During the Obama era, there were some initiatives for workers rights, particularly on a state level in the context of the minimum wage. However, the ineffectiveness of these attempts represent the inefficiency of American labor law.
There is still an utter disregard for the progression of workers rights. Today, over 7.3 million people are reliant upon on a minimum wage occupation as their primary source of income (Everyday Finance 280). This number is consistent with the combined population of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota and Alaska (US Census, 2010). Also, according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) Inflation Calculator on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website, the initial mandated minimum wage of $0.25 in 1938 is equivalent to $4.38 in modern dollars, which is only $2.87 less than today’s mandated minimum wage of $7.25. While the cost of living has risen dramatically, the income for millions of Americans has not grown. Hence the debate on increasing the minimum wage: Millions of Americans are trying to provide for themselves and their families on a virtually unchanged amount of income in over 80 years. In response, many are putting pressure on their state legislatures to provide more egalitarian standards for labor.
The state of New York enacted a progressive initiative in the advancement of workers rights in March 2016. This came as a response to a nation-wide protest that began in New York City, the so-called “fight for $15” (Nagourney 4). This was a multi-city strike lead by tens of thousands of workers that marched for a $15 national minimum wage mandate, as well as other progressive workers rights, such as fair pay for women and minorities. The state of New York mandated a $15 minimum wage in New York City by the end of 2018, and the same increase for surrounding counties by 2021 (McKinley Par. 2). Governor Andrew Cuomo, the current Governor of New York, also proposed the wage mandate because it was a feature campaign promise. The bill, nicknamed “The Cuomo Promise,” was named in reverence for his father, Mario Cuomo, who was a former New York Governor and highly praised as a “liberal beacon” (Nagourney 3).
Governor Andrew Cuomo is up for reelection in 2018, and the minimum wage increase mandate helps secure more votes, specifically from Democrats and the working class. All though historically Republicans have been opposed to raising the minimum wage, this policy proposal was met with surprising bipartisan support from New York Republicans. In an era of intense partisan divisiveness, this unprecedented consensus exists primarily because the bill allows New York to become a national “economic leader,” as a laboratory state, which is a state that pioneers a policy in order to examine the implications of leading-edge legislature both politically and economically (McKinley par. 17). Also, New York Republicans’ constituents largely consist of the working-class who are directly affected by the minimum wage increase.
The minimum wage increase also came as a
Although the Cuomo Promise was met with much bipartisan praise, some, like political cartoonist Jeffrey Boyer, met the bill with skepticism. The cartoon above, titled “Crumbs,” depicts a man seated on a bench feeding the surrounding pigeons. The man, or bird feeder, is wearing a pin that titles him as “New York Legislature,” and the pigeons are titled “Minimum wage workers.”
Boyer takes an apparent negative stance against the mandate. This is made clear by the way he portrays a simple power dynamic between the bird feeder, New York Legislation, and the birds, minimum wage workers. The cartoon characterizes the pay increase mandate as a ‘handout,’ by representing it as tossed crumbs to pigeons. The negative framing is also apparent in the characterization of the “minimum wage workers,” as pigeons, who are the receivers of the ‘handed out’ benefits. This is damagingly stigmatizing, by linking the typically unfavorable ideology behind minimum wage workers, to the commonly attributed symbolism of pigeons, such as them being bottom feeders, unintelligent, and dependent. The bird-feeder seems to be reluctant to give the pigeons food, considering the bag he is holding, titled ‘Salary Increase,’ is a large paper sack which likely contains his meal. This could indicate that the bird-feeder intended to feed himself rather than the pigeons. But, after the birds gathered around him in large quantities, he must have caved into their demands. This is an implicit metaphor for Boyer’s viewpoint of New York Legislatures, that their progressive actions were taken not in moral self interest, but from the growing coercion for the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama and their constituents. The “crumbs” are thus a metaphor for the inadequacy of the ‘handed-out’ minimum wage increase because in comparison to a full meal, crumbs are temporary and ultimately unsatisfying.
New York’s minimum wage mandate also functions as a contemporary parallel to the proactive and persistent travail of steel workers in the revolutionary Little Steel Strike of 1937. For decades, steel workers were exploited by firms nicknamed “Little Steel Corporations,” which were steel companies in the 1930s that were comparatively smaller than the leading manufacturer, U.S. Steel. “Little Steel Corporations” were able to coerce their employees into inequitable 100-hour work weeks with unreasonable low wages, because labor unions at the time lacked significant political capital to lobby to Congress. However, the National Labor Relations Board capitalized on the economic urgency for resources created by World War II to coerce steel firms into honoring the ultimatums of their employees. The Steel Corporations agreed upon a 40 hour pay week, a pay increase, and the right to collectively bargain.
The resolution, made famous by John Knott’s depiction of the resolution in a biblical allegory, was largely attributed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal, because it allowed the United States government more direct political power over corporate entities. FDR’s political presence in the battle for progressive workers rights became a critical catalyst that to this day provokes immediate political activism in the fight for workers rights: fair pay, collective bargaining, and work hour restraints.
The people of the United States, rather in the past, the present, or future, appear to be entangled in the sluggish inefficiency of change. Although the progressive agenda that strived to change and rectify corporate greed in the United States has had limited success in the past century, there is hope. New York’s recent enactment of the $15 minimum wage is an obvious milestone for the advancement of workers rights. Yet it is simultaneously indicative of how much further the people of the United States must push onward in the battle for equitable workers rights.
Labor Laws.” Everyday Finance: Economics, Personal Money Management, and Entrepreneurship, vol. 1, Gale, 2008, pp. 281-283. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=txshracd2598&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX2830600117&it=r&asid=2479ea0abb5dd9387b350cefa7289042. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.
Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, University of Maryland, 2011, www.gompers.umd.edu/quotes.htm.
McKinley, Jesse, and Vivian Yee. “New York Budget Deal With Higher Minimum Wage Is Reached.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2016, mobile.nytimes.com/2016/04/01/nyregion/new-york-budget-deal-with-higher-minimum-wage-is-reached.html.
Bureau, US Census. Census.gov, www.census.gov/en.html.
“CPI Inflation Calculator.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.
Boyer, Jeffrey. “Editorial Cartoon by Jeffrey Boyer.” The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, 3 Apr. 2016, editorialcartoonists.com/cartoon/display.cfm/149853/.
Nagourney, Adam. “Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon, Dies at 82.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Jan. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/01/02/nyregion/mario-cuomo-new-york-governor-and-liberal-beacon-dies-at-82.html.
Meister, Dick. “Ronald’s Reagan’s War on Labor.” Labor – And A Whole Lot More, www.dickmeister.com/id89.html.
McCartin, Joseph A. “Opinion | Reagan vs. Patco: The Strike That Busted Unions.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Aug. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/08/03/opinion/reagan-vs-patco-the-strike-that-busted-unions.html.