Occupy Our Occupations: Why "We Are the 99%" Resonates with Working People and What We Can Do to Fix the American Workplace

By Leberstein, Sarah; Christman, Anastasia | Fordham Urban Law Journal, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Occupy Our Occupations: Why "We Are the 99%" Resonates with Working People and What We Can Do to Fix the American Workplace


Leberstein, Sarah, Christman, Anastasia, Fordham Urban Law Journal


Introduction  I.   Workers Are Falling Behind      A. Running Faster to Stay in Place      B. Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?      C. Wage Theft and the Decline of the Organizations that      Fight It II.  The Decline of Standard Work      A. You Don't Work Here Anymore, Now Get to Work      B. Losing Your Job is "Just a New Way of Doing      International Business." III. A Disintegrating Safety Net IV.  Rebuilding Work as a Pathway to Opportunity      A. Raise the Minimum Wage and End Outdated         Exclusions      B. End Tax Incentives for Outsourcing American Jobs         and Create Incentives for U.S. Job Creation      C. Support Strong Enforcement of Labor Standards and         Hold Employers Accountable      D. Stop Independent Contractor Misclassification and         Hold Subcontracting Employers Responsible      E. Get America back to Work Conclusion 

INTRODUCTION

The experts have named "Occupy" 2011's word of the year, (1) even as the path for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement itself is unclear. Protest sites throughout the country are threatened with closure, and recent polling shows that a slim majority of respondents see their physical presence as a public nuisance. (2) The same polls however, show that between forty and forty-eight percent of respondents continue to see OWS as representing the frustrations of most Americans. (3) By coining the phrase "We Are the 99%," OWS has distilled a general sense of lost equilibrium such that even four months after its start, OWS remains able to "occupy" the popular imagination of a significant portion of the public. As The New York Times observed, OWS took a sentiment "in the air" and converted it into "simple math." (4)

Although most onlookers are not pitching tents at an Occupy camp, they are nevertheless experiencing the division between the 1% and the 99% every day in their occupations. (5) Workers at all levels are feeling precarious and exposed, and their ability to defend their labor rights and bargain collectively to set workplace standards is under attack. (6) OWS's early assertion that the movement represents "all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world" (7) resonated with the suspicion among millions of U.S. workers that employment no longer provides certainty today or promise for tomorrow. (8) Indeed, workers in the United States have less relative economic mobility--the ability to move outside the economic class of one's parents--than in most other industrial nations. (9) At the same time, legislative changes to safety net programs and increasingly hostile rhetoric against those who depend upon them have signaled to workers that they are on their own.

Even before the Great Recession, workers struggling with stagnant wages and stalled mobility were confronted by an idealized "meritocracy" that suggested their failure to rise was due to flaws in their character rather than a system where the rules were stacked against them. (10) Even now, several years into the recovery, an unprecedented number of workers are feeling the stigma. The Great Recession came on the heels of another slow "jobless" recovery; from 2000 to 2007, average annual job growth was only 0.6%, (11) leaving millions un- or under-employed and providing no pressure to increase the wages of those still at work. (12) The jobs that are being added to the economy are concentrated in higher-wage skilled professions or lower-wage jobs, while mid-wage jobs like machinists, kindergarten teachers, and sales representatives accounted for only 6.2% of net employment growth between 2001 and 2008. (13) This new hourglass economic model squeezes out any promise of economic mobility for most workers. (14)

Even with the start of this most recent "recovery," wage growth and job growth stagnated. Between the second quarter of 2009, when the recovery began, and the fourth quarter of 2010, national income rose by $528 billion, with the vast majority of that increase--$464 billion--going to pretax corporate profits and just $7 billion going to aggregate wages and salaries (after accounting for inflation). …

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