There was a lot of talk this election season about the worsening economic conditions of White males.
The chart below, from an Economic Policy Institute report by Alyssa Davis and Elise Gould titled Closing the Pay Gap and Beyond, shows the hourly median wage growth for workers of different gender, race, and ethnicity compared with the economy-wide growth in productivity over the period 1979 to 2014. As we can see, White male workers do indeed have something to complain about; in contrast to worker productivity, which grew by 62.7 percent over the period, their hourly median wage actually fell by 3.1 percent.
But, all this talk about White male workers distracts from the fact that Hispanic and Black men, who on average make significantly less than White men, suffered an even greater decline in their respective hourly median wages. Thus, relatively speaking, White male workers have far less to complain about than Black and Hispanic male workers.
At the same time, the chart does show positive gains in hourly median wages for women, with White women enjoying the largest gain over the period, 30.2 percent. However, these gains need to be put in perspective.
As the chart below shows, the earnings gap between men and women remains significant. The gender gap narrowed over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, partly because women’s wages rose and partly because men’s wages fell. However, the size of the gap has not changed much since. In fact, the most striking thing is that the median hourly wages of both men and women have been in decline.
It is also worth noting, as we can see in the chart below, that this gender gap exists at all levels of education, and in fact grows with the level of education.
And, just as with men, it is important to recognize that the experience of women workers is also shaped by race and ethnicity. As we saw in the first chart above, White women did far better than Black and Hispanic women over the period 1979 to 2014. And they did so from a higher earnings base: while White women earn approximately 81.8 percent of the White male median wage level, the corresponding percentage for Black women is 65.1 percent, and for Hispanic women only 58.9 percent. Clearly, there is not a lot for women to cheer about either, despite their relatively better wage performance over the entire period.
Unfortunately, the media focus on White males and their economic difficulties works to weaken the unity, and by extension power, of the labor movement. One reason is that it marginalizes non-White workers by making them invisible, despite the fact that they confront, as we saw above, far worse economic conditions than White males. Another is that it divides the labor movement into competing groups, setting up a gender conflict in which White male losses are explained by female gains, even though both male and female hourly median wages are falling.
The fact is that the great majority of workers are struggling, even during this so-called period of economic recovery. As the chart below shows, while productivity grew by 62.7 percent over the period 1979 to 2014, the overall hourly compensation (which includes both wages and benefits) of a typical worker grew by only 8 percent. This growing gap between productivity and compensation, created by corporate and state policies, helps to explain why profits and the income of the wealthy are growing so rapidly while worker earnings stagnate at best.
There is no shortcut to confronting and reversing existing trends. Only a strong united labor movement can anchor the broader movement for change that we need. Building that unity requires developing a shared understanding of the way discrimination produces pay gaps based on gender, race, and ethnicity, gaps that disproportionately benefit corporate bottom lines. It also requires prioritizing struggles that help to close those gaps in ways that strengthen worker power in both the workplace and community.
The authors of the EPI study provide a useful list of demands that point in the right direction:
Besides doing everything we can to eradicate labor market disparities based on gender and race, to maximize women’s economic security, we should pursue policies that spur broad-based wage growth by giving workers more leverage to secure higher pay. These policies include bringing about full employment, restoring the right to collective bargaining, raising the minimum wage and tipped minimum wage, guaranteeing access to paid sick leave and paid family leave, providing accessible and high-quality child care, ensuring that hourly workers can get the number of hours they need and curtailing employers’ irregular scheduling practices, increasing retirement security, updating and enforcing labor standards (e.g., raising the overtime salary threshold and cracking down on wage theft), enacting comprehensive immigration reform and providing undocumented workers a path to citizenship, and strengthening the social safety net.
The new Trump administration has made clear its anti-worker agenda and determination to break unions. Our response has to include serious efforts to revitalize the trade union movement and build popularly-led labor-community alliances in support of good jobs, a strong and accountable public sector, and sustainable and healthy cities. Cutting through the misinformation about the divisions within and conditions facing US workers is a small but necessary step.