The Working Poor, Countervailing Power, and EFCA

Let’s face it: For most Americans, what makes a recession “bad” is that it threatens the economic security of middle-class and upper middle-class households.  The stories that keep us awake at night are those of folks who were doing fine until a job loss sent them spiraling into foreclosure or bankruptcy.

But what of the people who were barely getting by even before the meltdown?

Barbara Ehrenreich, who helped to shine a light on the challenges facing the working poor in her bestseller Nickel and Dimed (2001), caught up with some of the people she interviewed for the book to see how they were doing.  Not surprisingly, she reported in an op-ed piece in the June 14 edition of the New York Times, they were still struggling:

This demographic, the working poor, have already been living in an economic depression of their own. From their point of view “the economy,” as a shared condition, is a fiction.

This spring, I tracked down a couple of the people I had met while working on my 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed,” in which I worked in low-wage jobs like waitressing and housecleaning, and I found them no more gripped by the recession than by “American Idol”; things were pretty much “same old.” The woman I called Melissa in the book was still working at Wal-Mart, though in nine years, her wages had risen to $10 an hour from $7. “Caroline,” who is increasingly disabled by diabetes and heart disease, now lives with a grown son and subsists on occasional cleaning and catering jobs.

The low-wage, service sector of our labor market emerged at a time when unions have been in decline.  As an important legislative response, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act will help to facilitate union formation and collective bargaining agreements.

In the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over division of profits.  By the mid-1990s, he reluctantly acknowledged for many workers union organization “is not now a practical solution.”  Passage of EFCA won’t reverse that judgment overnight, but it will help to level a badly tilted playing field.

For Ehrenreich’s op-ed, “Too Poor to Make the News”:

For a briefing paper I authored on the Employee Free Choice Act:

Earlier version published originally on June 16 on eLiberal, the blog of Americans for Democratic Action (

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