by Mary Ann Dunwell
“Salt of the Earth,” a 60s song by the Rolling Stones comes to mind as we near Labor Day. “Raise your glass to the hard working people,” “spare a thought for his back breaking work,” and “let’s drink to the salt of the earth.” These lyrics resonate today. Our state enjoys robust economic growth and full employment worth celebrating, but many hard working Montanans are not sharing in the economic prosperity that their hard work builds. Montana ranks in the 40s among other states for its low pay and low wage jobs. Many Montanans still live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet.
Let’s raise a glass to them this Labor Day that someday soon they’ll take home a living wage. That means enough to afford basic necessities and maybe even a little to put aside for that unforeseen, often inevitable emergency. In Montana that’s $14.40 for a single person and it goes up for families. For July, Montana’s unemployment rate was 4 percent, below the national rate of 5.3 percent. One state economist says Montana could have mere 1 percent unemployment in 10 years. Supply and demand may force higher wages eventually. But why wait a decade for folks to earn a living wage and make a life.
According to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UM, wages in health care, retail and construction are some of the fastest growing. Wage growth is slowest among teachers who shape young minds and public servants who provide essential human services. Although wages in health care are growing, the pay for some health workers lags around $10 an hour. These are workers who care for the most vulnerable among us – children and adults with mental illness and developmental disabilities or people who are aging and cannot care for themselves. Most states face a gender wage gap and Montana is again near the bottom of the pile. A woman working full time in Montana earns 75 cents on the dollar that a man working full time takes home, compared with 78 cents for women nationally.
When jobs in Montana pay at least a living wage with equal pay for equal work, good benefits, paid sick and family leave, non-discrimination, safe and healthy work conditions, the ability to form and join unions, that’ll be a happy Labor Day. When we support Main Streets by assuring that corporations pay their fair share in taxes, just like small businesses and the rest of us do, this will honor workers every day, not just once a year on Labor Day. So this year, as we hum “Salt of the Earth” and raise our glass to the hard working people, let’s also raise wages and quality of life for all Montanans. Happy Labor Day!
Mary Ann Dunwell is state representative for Montana House District 84, Helena/East Helena. During the legislative interim, she serves on the state’s Economic Development Advisory Council and the Montana Developmental Center Transition Council. You can reach her at (406) 461-5358 or firstname.lastname@example.org