"The basic bargain of America is that no matter who you are, where you come from or what you look like, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make it."
— Labor Secretary Tom Perez
This Labor Day offers us a view of disparity. But also hope.
On one hand, the gap between the lowest and the highest wage earners has widened to the point that our middle class is fast disappearing. On the other hand, momentum is gathering to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour -- where it has hovered for five years.
It's about time. In those five years, the cost of living has increased significantly. Meanwhile the minimum wage has lost ground. The minimum was worth 47 percent more in 1968 than it is worth today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would make a difference. It would benefit 28 million working Americans, more than half of them women, and many supporting families. Some 3.8 million people would earn enough so that they no longer need food stamps. And 14 million to 17 million children would benefit from a raise that boosts the income of at least one parent.
Locally, there is another disparity -- primarily the continuing disconnect between Tennessee's politicians and their definition of "right to work."
By state law, Tennessee is a right-to-work state, meaning workers may, but do not have to, join a union to get or keep a job. Yet the Volunteer State's Republican-heavy government has made right-to-work seem synonymous with a no-union and a cheap-labor industry recruitment claim.
Volkswagen, which has now brought us an estimated 5,600 more jobs -- direct and indirect -- on top of the 12,000 VW-related jobs that have grown here since 2008, still wants a U.S.-legal works council. Such a council is not a standard union; it's something the Germans term "co-determination," which places workers and management together in a team. The system works well at nearly all of VW's 60-plus plants around the world. But it would only be legal in the United States with a labor union.
Yet at every opportunity, Gov. Bill Haslam, state Sen. Bo Watson and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker have fought VW's and the United Auto Workers' effort to establish one. Instead, state officials appeared to panic that red Tennessee will be seen as welcoming in big unions -- unions that typically support Democrats.
The governor said UAW would scare away other jobs, Watson called VW and the works council plan "un-American," and threatened that the General Assembly would withhold promised incentives for the new SUV line as outlined in package agreements. The governor withdrew the incentives agreement.
But who wants to own closing the door on thousands of jobs? Certainly not politicians. When it appeared a union vote would be close, and the only hope was to scare VW workers away from a yes vote. That way, the fallout wouldn't dust the wingtips of political shoes. When the Grover Norquist-paid billboards and state lawmakers' sabre-rattling didn't seem quite loud enough to achieve the deed, Corker swooped in on the eve of the vote to imply that the SUV wouldn't be announced here if workers voted for the union.
It worked. The vote failed. Barely. But the works council idea did not.
VW is persistent. And so are Chattanooga's steady blue-collar workers.
United Auto Workers Local 42 opened here just weeks ago, and on Friday UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said he's confident Volkswagen will recognize the local by bargaining with it as a member's union.
"Worker support has been above our expectations," Casteel said, noting that the local has signed up "substantially more" than 700 workers. "We didn't think we'd be where we are as quick as we are," he told Times Free Press reporters and editors.
If we're lucky, this new Local 42 will birth a Chattanooga/American works council. And it will be a kinder, gentler kind of union, one that the South -- maybe even Republicans, someday -- can wrap their heads around.
We need a state and leaders who are not bullies and who understand that right-to-work is not slang for anti-union.
But most of all, we need to ensure that we show our leaders how well we understand their tactics: Fear campaigns work best in an economy where working people have every reason to be afraid. While it's true that Tennessee (which has no state minimum wage) has the fifth lowest median household income in the US, it's also true that it's citizens are not powerless.
That's the lesson of Local 42.
Happy Labor Day. And let's get a higher minimum wage, too.