WASHINGTON — From the coverage of the 2016 campaign over the last six months, you would think that American workers battered by economic change have finally won their moment in the political sun.
After all, Donald Trump is said to be the paladin of white blue-collar men and Bernie Sanders speaks unabashedly about the working class, a term many have (wrongly) written off as an antique concept out of 1930s black-and-white movies.
But media interest in policy initiatives that would benefit those who are struggling is scarce. It’s far more interesting, apparently, to cover the latest poll about an election that’s still a long way off, or to wax eloquent about a kerfuffle at a Democratic state convention in Nevada.
We had an objective test of this last week when the Obama administration announced much-needed new rules on overtime pay.
One of the insidious trends costing workers a lot of income has been the fake reclassification of even relatively low-paid employees as “managers,” which deprived them of overtime pay.
This was facilitated by the Labor Department’s failure to update the relevant rules, last altered in 2004. The change over time has been dramatic: Where more than 60 percent of salaried workers qualified for overtime in 1975, just 7 percent do now.
Under the 2004 rules, salaried workers could be denied overtime pay if they earned more than the rather non-managerial sum of $23,660 a year. The Obama administration raised this threshold to a more reasonable $47,476 a year, which the Labor Department estimates will make 4.2 million more workers eligible for overtime. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the department’s action may actually affect three times as many.
Whenever government acts to increase the bargaining power or pay of workers, free market fundamentalists insist that terrible things are bound to happen. On cue, House Speaker Paul Ryan declared the overtime rule was yet another Obama regulation that would be “an absolute disaster for our economy” and pledged to fight it.
I truly hope he tries. Let’s get members of Congress on record about overtime. And perhaps a big debate would force more coverage of this issue — and also get the media to press Trump about where he stands.
Overtime and proposals to increase the minimum wage are just part of a larger conversation that should be at the center of a campaign that is supposedly about the disinherited and disaffected.
The future of trade is a real issue, but Trump is getting away with fantastical claims about the “better deals” he could strike. And he has little to say about the unraveling of the country’s social contract with workers. It was caused not only or even primarily by trade but also by technological change and the failure of government policies to keep up with the very new circumstances in which workers find themselves.
Last Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., offered a model for the conversation we need. Speaking at the New America Foundation, she laid out what amounted to a bill of rights for the growing number of Americans engaged in contract, part-time and temporary work in the “gig” economy.
Warren was careful to note how technological innovations “have improved our lives in countless ways.” Uber and Lyft, for example, have challenged local taxi monopolies and provided “more rides, cheaper rides, and shorter wait times.”
But she also pointed out “how these companies have resisted rules designed to promote rider safety and driver accountability” and that “their business model is, in part, dependent on extremely low wages for drivers.”
Acknowledging both the gains and the problems of the new economy is the first step toward wisdom about where we need to go.
“To fully realize the potential of this new economy,” Warren argued, “laws must be adapted to make sure that the basic bargain for workers remains intact, and that workers have the chance to share in the growth they help produce.”
One key: “Workers without employers should have access to the same kind of benefits that some employees already have.” This, by the way, is why repealing the Affordable Care Act would be so foolish. While Warren called for improvements in Obamacare, she noted that it represents “a big step” toward the universality and portability we should seek in other areas, notably retirement benefits.
We’ll hear lots in the coming months about the rise of “populism.” But unless this talk is harnessed to policies that provide real help for actual people, it will have all the depth of a splenetic, ill-considered tweet.
E.J. Dionne is a nationally syndicated columnist.