By Kalena Thomhave | Sep 27, 2018
Good news has been a little thin this week, but here’s something decidedly positive: Today, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey approved a raise for approximately 40,000 airport workers at Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia airports. By 2023, airport workers, who include workers like cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, and wheelchair attendants, will receive a minimum wage of $19 per hour. That will be the highest targeted minimum wage in the country.
“I’m feeling good—real good,” says Yasmeen Holmes, who works in queue management at Newark. “We won, finally.”
Just seven years ago, workers were making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, says Rob Hill, vice president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents 10,000 workers at the three airports. “We had to do the hard work of organizing a union,” says Hill. “Rallies and leaflets and marches. [Workers] got arrested for blocking bridges and roads. We had, I think, 25 strikes.”
The union has been pressuring the Port Authority to raise the wage for years. A system of subcontracting kept wages low as companies bid against one another, aiming to offer the lowest price for work. In recent years, the union pushed the Port Authority to raise wages from the federal level up to $10.45 an hour at Newark and at least $13 an hour at JFK and LaGuardia. Over the next five years, these wages will rise to a $19 minimum.
I reported on Wednesday how airport workers around the world plan to protest during a global day of action on Tuesday, October 2. Airport workers are frequently forced to work for low wages and few or no benefits, even as airline profits skyrocket (this year, worldwide profits are expected to reach $38.4 billion). The high turnover of these jobs not only threatens workers’ economic security; it threatens airport safety and security. The New York and New Jersey Port Authority’s announcement is sure to be a rallying point for airport workers next week during the worldwide demonstrations.
“I feel like I can breathe,” says Donna Hampton, a security officer at JFK. Hampton, who described having to stagger her rent payments, says she is looking forward to being able to pay her rent in full. The fight for a living wage “was long and hard fought—but we never gave up.
“Honestly, I can sleep better,” she says. “It’s like a rebirth.”
Airlines everywhere report record profits, but airport contract workers haven’t seen healthy wage or benefit gains. Next week, those workers are joining together in North and South America, Europe, and Asia to bring attention to their plight.Kalena ThomhaveSep 26, 2018
Women employees walked off the job to force the company to take their complaints seriously.Kalena ThomhaveSep 20, 2018
By Kalena Thomhave | Sep 14, 2018
On Wednesday, the Census Bureau announced that median income had reached its highest recorded level in 2017, while the poverty rate declined. The report inspired glowing coverage from mainstream news sources, while President Trump predictably took credit.
“Middle-Class Income Hits All-Time High!” @foxandfriends And will continue to rise (unless the Dems get in and destroy what we have built).
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
But rosy as those numbers sound, they’re far from the full picture. While the Census Bureau’s 2017 data on poverty, income, and health insurance coverage does highlight a modest uptick in median income, that uptick looks far less impressive when adjusted for inflation.
“It’s true that the median income level … is the highest on record—but that’s not as unique an achievement as it sounds. That claim could be made in 13 or 14 previous [annual] reports,” Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), said in a call with reporters. It’s also not as if median income is the highest it’s ever been in real terms. Adjusted for inflation (and for the redesign of the census survey), we are finally at pre-recession income levels—in other words, people are making about as much as they did in 2007 and 2000 (and actually, a bit less). Plus, median income rose much slower in 2017 than it had been growing in recent years. Median income grew 5.1 percent and 3.1 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
And even if we forget about inflation, last year’s income growth wasn’t exactly a pay raise for many workers. Importantly, real wages have stayed mostly flat, so the increase in median income is largely due to workers putting in more hours, which they were able to do because of a tight labor market.
But while workers are earning about what they made in 2000, corporate profits, productivity, and general growth are all way, way up. Bernstein noted that in the past 17 years, GDP is up almost 40 percent, productivity is up 35 percent, and real corporate profits have almost doubled. All of this suggests that income inequality is roaring right alongside the booming economy.
Indeed, said Bernstein, household income at the 95th percentile grew 3 percent, to $237,000—much faster than median income’s growth of 1.8 percent.
Bernstein pointed out that we can “recognize good economic things that happen for middle- and low-income families when the economy closes in on full employment.” But those positive numbers do little to bridge the widening gap between overall growth and the economic realities faced by millions of working families.
The poverty rate also fell for the third straight year, from 12.7 percent to 12.3 percent, evidence of a recovering economy. The number of people living below the official poverty line remained the same—39.9 million people, including 12.8 million children.
But even those numbers need context. The census’s official poverty threshold is flawed in many ways, and doesn’t accurately portray the well-being of families in need. This is part of the reason the census introduced what’s known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The SPM counts consumption of things like food and housing as well as income from assistance programs, and overall gives a more complete picture of poverty. (You might be thinking, why not just turn to something like the SPM, then, if the official poverty measure is flawed? Well, the 2017 SPM is 13.9 percent, and who wants to be the president who increases the number of people counted as impoverished?)
Data from the 2017 SPM show that public assistance programs helped millions of people earn enough to keep them out of poverty. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Social Security did the most to combat poverty, keeping 27 million people above the poverty line. Tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit kept another 8.3 million people out of poverty, food stamps kept out 3.4 million, and unemployment insurance another 542,000. Rent subsidies, CBPP notes, lifted 2.9 million people out of poverty. In all, data from CBPP show that 44 percent of those who would have been poor in 2017 weren’t—because of the social safety net.
These are, of course, some of the very programs that the Trump administration has been aiming to cut. And new tax cuts—Tax Reform 2.0, which House Republicans recently introduced—would only widen the gap between rich and poor.
Like the tax cuts of 2017, these new tax cuts would also raise the deficit. And this ballooning of the deficit has in the past, as now, been used as a reason for Republicans to further cut assistance programs that low-income people—without a higher minimum wage, without strong unions, and without work supports like child care—need to simply get by.
Taking a closer look at the census data reveals a disconnect between the experience of working families and how the economy is faring as a whole—and the GOP is poised to make this disconnect worse.
Many in the path of the storm, including poor residents and hundreds of prisoners, are forced to stay put.Kalena ThomhaveSep 13, 2018