Working toward solutions

By addressing such issues as wages, health insurance and job security, a smart presidential hopeful could win working Americans' support.

September 05, 1999|By Andrew L. Stern

KANSAS CITY, MO. — THIS LABOR DAY, U.S. presidential candidates will be busy shaking hands at picnics and trying to figure out how to get the support of America's working men and women. Here's some free advice, complete with a few sample platform planks that the candidates are welcome to steal.

In recent months, I've talked with nurses, home-care workers, janitors, social workers and other working people from Maryland to California, and I find that most are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the coming elections. They are waiting for a candidate to capture their imaginations, not through personality or a television image but by leading the nation toward action on the problems that working families face.

A candidate who wants to inspire working people should start by speaking the truth about the so-called "booming economy." For most Americans, it's really the "paddling faster" economy, as many families work harder and longer just to keep from losing ground.

During the past 25 years, the productivity of the average American worker is up 30 percent, but the buying power of the average weekly wage is down 17 percent. The percentage of workers doing at least two jobs has increased by 29 percent during the past 20 years. The stock market is soaring, but only 4 percent of the gain from 1989 to 1997 went to the 60 percent of Americans who are in the middle and lower income ranges.

Forty-three million Americans have no health insurance, and those working families with coverage worry that a layoff, job change, injury or illness could cost them their insurance. Six out of 10 workers in the private sector lack guaranteed pension benefits.

Working families would flock to candidates who proposed real solutions to problems such as these. I'm not talking about current campaign debate topics such as the Patients' Bill of Rights, which would help enforce the health coverage some people are paying for but would do nothing to make health care more universal or secure.

Candidates could propose more creative measures. How about taking away the free, comprehensive health coverage that members of Congress and the president enjoy -- until it is also provided to all Americans? Let politicians face the same uncertainty and rising costs that millions of other Americans experience, and they would find a way to enact universal health care in a hurry.

Add to that a requirement that health care reform proposals be developed with the active involvement of patients, doctors, nurses and others who confront medical problems every day. We need fewer insurance executives, consultants and HMO accountants at the table -- and more people who know firsthand how to make the system more efficient and more humane.

Candidates could also demonstrate their leadership by proposing legislation applying the principle of equal pay for equal work to part-time and temporary workers. Nearly one of three workers in America is paid on a "contingent" basis; yet two-thirds of those who "temp" say they would prefer a permanent job if they could find one.

An important reason many employers are shifting to these "throwaway" jobs is to avoid paying the normal wage rate, health benefits and pensions. That negative incentive could be removed by making discrimination based on part-time, temporary or subcontractor status as illegal as discrimination based on age, gender, race or religion.

Another proposal that would be popular with working families is a national "living wage" law. It would provide that no corporation may receive federal contracts, grants or subsidies unless it pays a living wage with pension and health benefits. A candidate could point out that many cities and states have proven that such laws work, requiring companies that want our tax money to pay not just the minimum wage but also enough to live on.

In addition to making such innovative proposals, candidates should make clear that they would use the presidency to support working people who join to promote productivity, quality and fairness where they work.

According to Business Week, nearly half of all American workers want a union so they can have a voice on the job, but only a third of U.S. workers are in unions. The main reason workers decide not to form unions is pressure from supervisors who control their schedules, promotions and working conditions.

Candidates could gain more worker support by promising to speak out in presidential news conferences, the weekly presidential radio address and other forums about companies that interfere with employees' freedom to choose a voice at work.

They also could vow to spotlight workers who stand up for their families and their communities. They could promise to hold public ceremonies at the White House, not just for champion athletes but also for workers such as the 74,000 home care providers in Los Angeles who united this year to seek funding for stable, quality care for seniors and people with disabilities.

Commitments such as these wouldn't address every problem that working people face. But they would make a difference for America's working families -- and in the process help any candidate who takes this advice to stand out from the pack.

Andrew L. Stern is president of the Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest health care union.

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