Workers Are Fighting for What They Deserve, and They Need More Federal Support

By Brandee McGee

At the beginning of this summer, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike for higher pay and a fairer pay structure in the wake of the entertainment industry’s shift from television to streaming. Currently, workers do not get residuals for plays on streaming platforms like they do from network television reruns. While executives often rake in tens of millions of dollars a year, the majority of entertainment workers live below the poverty line. Soon after, the Screens Actors Guild joined them — the first time SAG has gone on strike in more than 60 years. Other high profile labor efforts include workers at Starbucks, UPS, and Amazon.

This historic, collaborative strike comes after the pandemic shifted the power dynamic of the labor market. Although union activity had been steadily declining in the United States for decades, COVID-19 demonstrated to workers just how much value they are responsible for producing, how little care corporate executives show for employees’ health and wellbeing in the wake of a deadly virus, and how much more bosses could be paying their workers. The stimulus checks, supplemental unemployment benefits, and expanded child tax credit also proved how well the government could meaningfully provide for the average family. The child tax credit, for example, cut child poverty almost in half until Congress let it expire in 2021.

Despite these direct payment programs, the pandemic still widened the racial wealth gap. Immigrant and undocumented workers were among the hardest hit: While “69 percent of all immigrant workers and 74 percent of all undocumented workers [were] employed in essential industries” as the virus raged throughout the country, immigrants also faced higher unemployment rates amidst the layoffs — and “[u]ndocumented immigrants who remained employed in high-risk COVID-19 jobs were paid wages up to twice that of the poverty level — insufficient to meet bills and expenses.” Additionally, the pandemic slowed progress that was made on narrowing the gender wage gap, as women were most likely to leave their jobs to care for sick family members as well as their children as schools shut down.

Although many programs can help to narrow the racial and gender wealth gaps — including a pathway to citizenship, investments in underfunded communities, free public education, affordable childcare, and student loan forgiveness — unionization is one solution that benefits everyone, but especially workers from historically marginalized communities. Black participation in unions has traditionally been higher than for any other racial group since unions began to integrate, but it has dipped at a greater rate recently than for any other group. According to the Urban Institute, “[h]igher union membership also narrows the racial wealth gap by supplying a larger wealth dividend to nonwhite workers than to white workers…That’s why conversations about the importance of unions should be not only class based but racially conscious.

These labor efforts helped make up the foundation upon which The Leadership Conference was built. The coalition’s co-founder, A. Philip Randolph, organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, directed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to end employment discrimination, and eventually became a vice president for the AFL-CIO. Now, The Leadership Conference carries on his legacy by working closely with coalition members to advocate in Congress and with federal agencies for workers’ rights.

Even though the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been underfunded for years, House Republicans are seeking to further cut NLRB funding by 33 percent. They’ve also proposed cuts to OSHA, the Wage and Hour Division, and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, in addition to elimination of the Women’s Bureau and the Bureau of International Labor Affairs. These cuts would hinder the ability of agencies to enforce civil rights laws and workplace protections. 

Senate HELP Committee Chair Bernie Sanders and House Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott recently reintroduced a bill we’ve long endorsed: the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $17 per hour over five years, gradually eliminate the $2.13 tipped subminimum wage over seven years, eliminate the subminimum wage for workers with disabilities over five years (half of workers employed under special certificates from the DOL earn less than $3.50 per hour), and eliminate the $4.25 youth subminimum wage for youth workers over seven years. It would also index the federal minimum wage to median wage growth so that the value of the federal minimum wage does not recede over time. There are also nominees pending before the Senate for federal agencies critical to protecting working people, including the Department of Labor, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the NLRB.

We continue to be inspired by striking workers as well as the public that’s come together to support them during a time when the productivity pay gap has never been higher. When one industry or workplace fights for the wages and benefits they deserve, it helps to empower and inspire all other industries and workers as well.

For more information about how you can organize your workplace or support workers’ rights, visit the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, or NELP. You can also contact your senators and urge them to support the Raise the Wage Act and the confirmation of pending nominees — and to oppose the budget cuts proposed in the appropriations bill.

Brandee McGee was a summer 2023 legal intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.