Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Enough of crumbs: We want a piece of the pie

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UAW on strike
Rally and march in Downtown Detroit organized by UAW members on strike, September, 2023. This year has seen a dramatic uptick in number of workers going on strike in the U.S. Photo: Luigi Morris

Why are members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) taking to the street as the latest workers to go on strike this year? Here’s one reason: auto industry profits soared by 92% in ten years, to $250 billion, while worker pay has declined by nearly 20% since 2008.

It’s no wonder workers are fed up. Corporate concentration and power have been on the rise for decades. And the ones who are profiting are corporate executives and shareholders—not workers.

CEO pay has skyrocketed 1460% since 1978; the ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation went from 20-to-1 in 1965 to 399-to-1 in 2021. And worker wages have NOT kept pace with CEO increases—nor productivity. While worker productivity increased by 64.6% between 1979 and 2021, hourly wages only bumped by 17.3%.

This is not the American dream that we were all raised on—the one that says, as long as you work hard you will be rewarded. Instead, we are seeing a return to the days of Upton Sinclair and the Gilded Age—when fat cats counted their money while those living in poverty worked in horrific conditions for little pay.

I face the sad truth that our children are not better off than we were; they are facing a tumultuous world, with staggering rates of inequality and a climate crisis the threatens our very existence. They have mounting student debt, rising costs of healthcare, food, and energy, and paychecks that fail to keep pace. Is it any wonder that we are seeing a summer of striking workers continue into the fall?

From Hollywood, to warehouses, to coffee shops—the latest strike by auto workers exemplifies the choice we collectively have to make: to stand up with workers fighting for our future, or accept the corporate power that continues to funnel profits to the already wealthy. Today, CEOs, executives, and financiers have more money than they know what to do with. The average CEO at one of the top 350 firms in the U.S. earns $27.8 million; nearly a third of U.S. workers earn under $15 an hour.

We need to demand an economy that works for all us.

The UAW is using a framework of inequality to talk about the need to strike. Some people in the auto industry are getting rich—but it's not the workers on the factory floor.

Corporate executives will cry poor, talk of rising costs, and tout the need to invest in new technologies. But we cannot and should not be fooled. Auto industry profits skyrocketed by 92% from 2013 to 2022, totaling $250 billion; $66 billion went to shareholders and buybacks; and CEO pay jumped by 40%.

It isn’t that there isn’t enough pie for everyone, it’s that a small handful of largely white men want to hoard it for themselves while leaving workers with crumbs.

This is a system that corporations and the ultrawealthy have built, to their benefit alone. Companies are now incentivized to extract profit above all else—to the detriment of workers and our communities.

Workers not only deserve better, but the American Dream does as well. We can choose to reward work not just capital; we can choose to share profits not hoard it; we can choose a future where we all thrive, not one which is built on the exploitation of others.

So, let’s all grab a fork and take a bite.

Unions work. Congress can support organizing efforts.

The truth is that we can do a lot more to support unions. Unions work: union members have higher wages than their peers, are more likely to have access to health care and paid leave, and experience smaller gender and racial wage gaps than non-members.

And they help set new standards that shape labor practices beyond union contracts. Unions not only make things more fair for workers—they help reduce economic, gender, and racial inequality in our society.

Congress can start to level the playing field for working families now by passing the PRO Act, which would expand protections around workers’ rights to bargain and organize as a collective.

Thanks! And tip your server!