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September 1, 2013
Editorial: Hard-fought battles built the middle class


(Sept. 1 -- By the Editorial Board)

An eight-hour workday, workplace safety standards, unemployment insurance, health and retirement benefits and the minimum wage did not just happen. They were the result of hard-fought changes - something we should remember on Labor Day.

To chants of "I can't survive on $7.25!" - the current federal minimum wage - fast-food and retail workers walked off the job in more than 50 cities last week.

The protesting workers were a visual reminder of how much the structure of the U.S. economy has changed. About half of minimum wage workers in 2012 were older than 25, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median age for a fast-food worker now is 29.

A new report by the California Budget Project shows that holds in California, too: "California's recovery has disproportionately relied on low-wage service industries for job growth, and jobs generally have not returned in occupations that tend to pay wages in the middle of the earning's distribution."

More of the new jobs are at the top and the bottom; the middle is getting squeezed.

In late July, President Barack Obama promised that, regardless of the political climate in Washington and volatile events around the world, he would "use every minute of the 1,276 days remaining in my term to make this country work for working Americans again."

The president's pledge is a worthy one - and Americans should remind him of it, and not only on Labor Day.

This isn't just about recovering from the Great Recession - where the U.S. economy lost 8.75 million jobs, the steepest loss since the Great Depression. It is about grappling with the longer-term erosion of the middle class since the 1970s.

Obama wants Americans to "rebuild ladders of opportunity" not with a three-month or a three-year plan, but a "long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades."

That means attending to the basics: Rebuilding our manufacturing base. Educating our workforce. Upgrading our transportation and information networks. Raising the minimum wage.

Other than the minimum wage, these really should not be controversial.

The president has called for raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, which would return the minimum wage to its value at the start of Ronald Reagan's presidency in 1981.

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, has introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 (HR 1010/S 460) that would increase the minimum wage immediately to $8.20 an hour, to $9.15 an hour after one year and to $10.10 an hour after two years.

The striking fast-food workers are demanding a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Opponents fear that an increase would bring job losses, rather than economic stimulus.

This is a debate worth having after Labor Day, when Congress returns from its summer recess.

As he was speaking in Galesburg, Illinois, the birthplace of poet Carl Sandburg, Obama took a line from a 1918 poem " ... the past is a bucket of ashes ... yesterday is a wind gone down, a sun dropped in the west ... there is ... only an ocean of tomorrows, a sky of tomorrows." He described this as "frontier optimism."

The health of our middle class needs to be better, but it will improve only if a strong economy is built on a foundation of strong protections for working families. An eight-hour work day, workplace safety standards, unemployment insurance, health and retirement benefits and the minimum wage did not just happen. These changes were the result of hard-fought battles over years and decades, something we should remember on Labor Day.

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