As we gear up for the 2016 presidential race, there are some new political players in town. Across party lines and regional divides, these Americans are leading the call for an economy that works for working families again. They see raising wages and rebuilding the middle class as top priorities for the country today -- and they're ready to make their voices heard at the ballot box. It's not hard to understand why: These men and women make up the astonishing 42 percent of all workers in America who are now paid less than $15 an hour.
But while presidential candidates, economists and commentators debate how to address America's low-wage crisis, one important question has been overlooked: What do the tens of millions of Americans paid less than $15 an hour -- the "42 percent" -- think about how to rebuild America's economy?
Now, for the first time, their voices are heard through findings released by the National Employment Law Project, from a survey asking Americans paid less than $15 an hour a wide range of questions about the economy and how to create good jobs. These Americans responded with a clear set of ideas for a better future.
Most notably, 72 percent of workers paid less than $15 an hour say they support unions -- higher than any level of support ever recorded among the general population. And it's not hard to see why. These workers -- those hit hardest by declining wages and weakened workplace protections -- struggle simply to keep food on the table and a roof over their families' heads. In the absence of fair pay and a voice at work, they will be left to rely on public assistance just to cover the basics. A study earlier this year by The University of California-Berkeley showed that working families receive $154 billion a year in public assistance.
It's not surprising that these workers are looking for commonsense solutions, and many believe that joining with their coworkers is their best chance at a brighter future. Seventy-two percent believe unions can make a real difference in whether or not workers like themselves get raises. Sixty-six percent say they would have a better chance of making $15 an hour and being able to support their families if they could join a union.
This outpouring of support for a voice on the job from underpaid workers across the economy is the latest sign that workers across the economy are ready to join together in unions to address the most important problems on the job. From reporters at digital outlets like Gawker, Salon and Al Jazeera to pharmacists at a Brooklyn Target to cooks and cashiers at McDonald's, workers across the economy are demanding a seat at the table and a say at work. And they're not alone. Economic experts like former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers have weighed in as well, declaring unions a critical pathway to rebuilding the middle class.
Minimum wage increases are great, but not enough. Workers shouldn't have to rely on sporadic and incremental raises dependent on the good will of politicians. They need an ongoing vehicle for making sure their wages rise with profitability, productivity and economic growth.
The U.S. is the one of the only major nations without meaningful worker representation through unions or other vehicles. In Europe and throughout the world, workers have real vehicles for collecting bargaining and participating in wage decisions by sector. The absence of worker voice in the US compared with other nations is a factor in the significantly greater imbalances here than elsewhere in what workers are paid versus the compensation for corporate executives.
McDonald's and other major corporations with wages so low their employees must rely on public assistance to get by can lead the way in answering the call of the tens of millions of underpaid Americans demanding a living wage and a voice on the job.
And looking ahead to 2016, the survey shows "the 42 percent" are poised to become a potent political force whose priorities will continue to change the climate for unions in the country.
Sixty-nine percent of unregistered respondents in the just-released survey say they would register to vote if there were a presidential candidate who supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and making it easier for workers to join a union. Among registered respondents, 65 percent say they are more likely to vote if a candidate supports a $15 minimum wage and a union for all workers.
The "42 percent" have made themselves clear: Raise wages so that we can support our families, or lose our support at the polls.
Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.