Labor Day reminds us of the growing economic divide
August 22, 2001
This Labor Day, we need to recognize that our nation is moving inexorably toward a service economy. But while a handful of people in this sector are highly paid, many service workers are stuck in dead-end jobs with low wages, lousy benefits and high turnover.
The hospitality industry, whose workers my union represents, faces the same question as other industries: Will the economy produce high-road or low-road employment?
The hospitality industry has always served as an important entry to a career for immigrants, women (especially single mothers), people of color and young people. It is important that industries help improve their quality of life so they can make net contributions to our communities.
Industries ought to provide jobs that pay a wage that can support a family and give parents time to be involved with their children.
We deserve jobs with affordable, comprehensive health insurance and access to care so taxpayers aren't forced to foot the bill when employers abdicate their responsibilities.
We need jobs with decent retirement benefits that give dignity to older people.
And we need jobs that offer skills training so workers have career opportunities to help improve their families' lives.
Unions help provide these benefits. In cities that have strong, active locals and where a large percentage of hospitality employees belong to a unions, programs are collectively bargained and funded by employers.
In heavily unionized Las Vegas, jobs in the highly profitable gaming industry provide some of the best opportunities in America for working families, especially for workers with little formal education.
But industry does not pursue high-road employment where there are few, if any, unions. Instead, it tends to fiercely resist unionization and hold down wages and benefits.
In Mississippi, the third-largest gaming state in the country, the same companies that operate in Las Vegas provide only low-road, low-wage, lousy-benefit, high-turnover and dead-end jobs. This is even though these companies are highly profitable, as they are in Las Vegas.
Workers come from all over the world to propel the economic growth in hospitality, gaming and other industries. Immigrants work hard every day and pay taxes. But without unions, their employers recognize few, if any, rights.
We need to support the rights of these immigrants. As the prospect of guest-worker programs becomes more imminent, a threat looms. In these programs, the immigration status of workers depends on their jobs and employers. Workers would find it impossible to protest mistreatment, low wages or bad conditions if they faced being fired and deported.
Expansion of guest-worker programs would be a dire mistake. Guest workers must endure low-road employment and constant turnover. Employers have no reason to invest in a transitory workforce and, in fact, have a strong disincentive to invest in training, decent wages, benefit programs and employee retention. Both customer service and workers suffer as a result.
We are at a crossroads.
Low-road employment is seductive as employers see it as the road to short-term profits. But in the long run, low-road jobs undermine customer service and ultimately cost much more. High-road employment makes the most sense, not only for workers and their families, but also for companies, communities and our nation.
We can't build a successful economy unless we restore the social contract made during the Great Depression, which ensured that the labor of workers and their families would be rewarded.
Today that social contract is being renounced. Working hard every day no longer necessarily provides families a decent life. This is a disgrace.
It's our responsibility to make sure the economy works for all Americans.
John Wilhelm is president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
International Union. He also chairs the AFL-CIO Immigration Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.