By: Jessica Eckdish
This month we celebrated Labor Day, an important day to honor and celebrate America’s workers and the contributions of the labor movement to our country. As we are also nearing the end of the current presidential term, it’s an important opportunity to take stock of the direction we’re heading and whether the path we’re on is working.
It’s not. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll and is nowhere close to done. America has surpassed 7 million cases and 200,000 deaths, millions of people have lost jobs and remain unemployed, and workers continue to struggle to stay safe and healthy on the job.
We went into this pandemic with three ongoing interconnected crises: economic inequality, racial inequality, and climate change. The pandemic has cast a harsh spotlight on just how severe and disproportionate the impacts of these crises are.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the bottom 90% of the American workforce has seen their pay shrink radically as a share of total income,” from 58% in 1979 to 47% in 2015. That is almost $11,000 per household. There is a direct correlation with the decrease of worker power, as the share of workers in a union fell from 24% in 1979 to under 11% now.
And the deck has been stacked against people of color. Data point after data point illustrates exactly how unequal our economy is. Regardless of education level, black workers are far more likely to be unemployed than white workers, and black workers are paid on average 73 cents to the dollar compared to white workers. The wage gap persists regardless of education, and even with advanced degrees black workers make far less than white workers.
The systemic racism inherent in our society has proved deadly for black Americans, who regardless of making up just 12.5% of the U.S. population, represent 22.4% of COVID-19 deaths. And among those aged 45-54, Black and Hispanic/Latino death rates are at least six times higher than for whites.
We’ve seen clearly just how dangerous the status quo is. We need to move urgently towards economic recovery. At the same time, we know that returning to “normal” is not good enough. We have to do better.
Last summer, the BlueGreen Alliance alongside our labor and environmental partners released Solidarity for Climate Action, a first of its kind platform recognizing that the solutions to economic inequality, racial injustice, and climate change have to be addressed simultaneously. With COVID-19 worsening these crises, the vision of Solidarity for Climate Action is more important now than ever.
We can tackle economic recovery in a way that achieves multiple goals simultaneously—we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change, deliver public health and environmental benefits, create and maintain good, union jobs, address economic and racial injustice, and create a cleaner, stronger, and more equitable economy for all.
Here’s how we can do that:
In addition to prioritizing frontline workers’ and vulnerable communities’ health and safety, recovery efforts must prioritize equitable rebuilding and investments in workers and communities that need it most, especially low-income communities, communities of color, and deindustrialized communities. Generations of economic and racial inequality have disproportionately exposed low-income workers, communities of color, and others to low wages, toxic pollution, and climate threats. We must inject justice into our nation’s economy.
We must invest in our infrastructure. From our failing roads and bridges and water systems to our buildings, electric grid, and transportation systems, infrastructure investments will boost our economy and create millions of jobs, while also reducing pollution.
We need to support and retool America’s manufacturing sector, which took a major hit during the pandemic. Making a major reinvestment in transforming heavy industry and retooling to build more of the clean products, materials, and technologies of the future here can provide pathways to good family-supporting jobs and strong domestic supply chains while reducing growing climate emissions.
The pandemic exposed the inadequate investments we’ve made in our public sector. We need to rebuild and invest in our health care systems, public health agencies, education, and community-based services to be better prepared for disasters like COVID-19 or natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. We also must rebuild and expand the social safety net—including pensions, healthcare, and retirement security—and ensure and enforce worker and community health and safety.
We also have to ensure these investments support and create local jobs with fair wages and benefits and safe working conditions, create economic opportunity for all people in the communities in which they reside, and meet forward-thinking environmental standards to ensure resiliency.
By making smart investments where they are most needed, ensuring that economic and racial justice are core principles in all we do, and rebuilding with the reality of climate change at the forefront, we can and will build a fairer, more sustainable, and just future for America.
Jessica Eckdish, Legislative Director with the BlueGreen Alliance, writes about how labor and environment can come together to create a “cleaner, stronger, and more equitable economy for all.” This roadmap to economic recovery could allow us to achieve multiple goals related to climate change, public health, and the environment, as well as the creation of good union jobs that address economic and racial justice.