A Workers’ Guide to the Messed-Up Economy

Stephen Franklin

Reginald Munnings (L) and Will Brown attend a rally asking for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to sign an executive order for unemployment compensation reform on September 7, 2010 in Miami, Fla.

You feel overwhelmed by campaign ads throwing somber-sounding economic claims at you, right? You don’t think Corporate America has your back, but you can’t exactly say why.

Well, I am here to serve you.

Here’s a brief workers’ guide to the messed-up economy that you can keep next to the tube while watching those ads, roll up for handy reference over lunch, or to send to friends. The data comes from recent research by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Somebody got cheated, and it wasn’t Corporate America.

Companies are moaning about a sluggish economy and the need to cut wages or benefits. Wait a minute…

Since late 2008, corporate profits have been steadily climbing. They grew by $572 billion, or 57 percent, from late 2008 to early this year, while wage and salary payments to workers fell by $121 billion, or 2 percent. In other words, corporations’ share of income growth coming out of the bottom of the recession is the highest ever.

Work harder to make up for the missing jobs in these tough times and Corporate America will reward you.

The fact is that there’s been a sharp rise in worker productivity, but there have been no real paycheck improvements. Never before in postwar history did all of the national income gains over a 15-month period go to corporate profits,” according to the Center for Labor Market Studies.

The economy must be getting better because the unemployment rate stopped climbing.

That’s fine, if you don’t count ghosts. And the unemployment stats don’t. They don’t include the workers who’ve given up. As of August we had about 3.5 million so-called missing workers. It’s the same for the number of folks collecting unemployment checks. When their time runs out — and a lot have gone this route — the luckless jobless vanish from this count. Oh yeah. We are also about 7.6 million jobs short of when the recession began.

Don’t be a dummy. If you get a college degree, you are okay. You’ll get pay raises. You’ll be on the road to riches.

Maybe that was once true. But if you are counting dollars in terms of their real worth, then somebody uncoupled college degree holders from pay raises in the last decade. In fact, the average worker with a college degree was earning a $1 less each day in 2009 than 2000.

Something is wrong, you say. Well, you are right.

Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

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