September 2nd, 2013 in Opinion Times

This is a Labor Day to celebrate, as well as one to salute the people who built this country's prosperity. It's also one when we need to acknowledge we have much more to do to help the working men and women of this country - as well as the ones still looking for new and better jobs.

The nation is overcoming the most crippling recession in 80 years. In the last four years, we have grown jobs to put 7.3 million people back to work. Unemployment is at its lowest level since 2008.

The Chattanooga region has shared in that growth. In fact, the city led the region's growth with a state-of-the-art Volkswagen auto assembly plant, Amazon distribution facility and other companies which built or expanded here.

However, there is more to do. Regionally and nationally, low-paid workers, especially in service jobs, deserve to be paid a fair living wage. That could be accomplished if Congress would raise the present $7.25 minimum wage to a proposed $15 minimum wage.

Additionally, much is at stake here and nationally for labor unions as VW workers consider a United Auto Workers unionization bid at the plant.

Chattanooga Times Free Press staff writer Mike Pare writes in today's paper that a VW thumbs-up for UAW would mark the union's first success at a major, foreign-owned Southern assembly plant after three decades of trying to crack the traditionally non-union region. It also could start the reverse of four decades of declining union membership in Chattanooga's private-sector economy. Chattanooga was once one of the stronger cities in the South for organized labor.

The labor movement, to be sure, is undeniably responsible for much of what is good about the American workplace. Unionists were in the forefront of curbing abuse and exploitation in the factories spawned by the Industrial Age. Not the least of union accomplishment was child labor reform.

Many conservatives say labor unions are no longer needed. That's a nice thought, but if it's true, why has the ratio of CEO-to-worker pay increased 1000 percent since 1950, according to Bloomberg? In April, Bloomberg found that Fortune 500 CEOs make 204 times what regular workers make, on average. A separate government reading six months before found total wages had fallen to a record low of 43.5 percent of GDP - gross domestic product. A more healthy rate is at least half of GDP.

And if unions are no longer needed, why are corporate profits at an all-time high as the nation climbs out of recession and wages have been squeezed and frozen for years?

A minimum wage increase is always controversial, and this newest Obama administration proposal is no exception. Is it economic justice for the low-income backbone of American commerce? Or is it a threat to the future of the hard-pressed fast-food industry? On Thursday and Friday, picketers in about 50 cities, including Memphis, Tenn., stood outside McDonald's, Wendy's and other quick-service eateries calling for higher pay and the right to organize.

According to a "Living Wage Calculator" developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Chattanooga fast-food full-time worker - or any other kind of full-time worker - making $8 an hour is earning very close to a poverty-level wage ($5.21 an hour).

If the worker is a single parent with one child, a poverty wage is $7 an hour. That same worker with one child would have to earn $23.53 to be making what MIT calls a living wage.

Working Americans still are this nation's heart and soul. They also are its largest voting block.

Workers, this Labor Day, think what you can accomplish.