Commentary
12:02 am
Fri August 8, 2014

Good Jobs Missoula

Everyone would like to see Missoula get more good jobs – jobs that pay well, offer good benefits, provide access to quality health care and a secure retirement.

Most people will say that the particular good jobs Missoula needs are in the high tech, manufacturing, natural resource extraction and construction sectors. Indeed, jobs in these sectors tend to offer workers most of the very things that define a “good job.”

In fact these jobs – manufacturing, natural resource extraction and construction – were the “bad jobs” of 100 years ago. Back then these jobs were dangerous and low-paid with few, if any, benefits.

So how did the bad jobs of 100 years ago become the good jobs of today?

By far the most important factor was the labor movement. It was the decades-long struggle of organized workers in these sectors that turned these bad jobs into the good jobs of today.

The labor movement had help: churches, worker-centered political parties, politicians dedicated to social and economic justice, and other civic organizations. But it was the drive of workers organizing for change that was the principal force.

Some statistics:

University of Montana economist Larry Swanson estimates that about half of all new jobs in Montana by 2020 will be in retail, hospitality and health care. About 36 percent of all Montana workers today are employed in these service sectors.

In Missoula, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, about 36 percent of all Missoula private-sector workers work in jobs that pay on average less than $23,000 a year. In particular, over 4,400 Missoulians work in about 250 food service establishments where each job pays on average $12,706 a year. Typically these service sector jobs offer few if any benefits, difficult access to quality health care and no real security for retirement.

About a third of low-wage workers in Montana do go on to “better” jobs, according to Department of Labor and Industry economist Aaron McNay. He also says that another third are long-term workers in the service sectors, and the rest have both a service and non-service sector job.

The National Women’s Law Center has found that nationally one third of women in the low-wage workforce are mothers – and 40% of them have family incomes below $25,000.

According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of all minimum wage workers are 25 years old and older. These are clearly jobs not dominated by teenagers.

These jobs are the “bad jobs” of today. The work that these workers do deserves all of our respect. It is real work and a real job. Service sector workers need a good job to support themselves and their families.

So what can be done?

Just like the labor movement of a hundred years ago, it is up to workers in these sectors to find their voice and their power to transform their jobs into good jobs. We will need to find allies, like workers a century ago: religious institutions, political leaders committed to social and economic justice, and other civic-minded organizations.

But, as it was back then, organized and organizing workers will need to be the principal force for change. The movement is already at work here and around the world. The campaigns of Walmart and fast food workers are but two examples.

Here in Missoula two campaigns seek to turn service sector jobs into good jobs. The Missoula Community Benefits Coalition is working to make the proposed Hotel Fox and Convention Center a project that addresses some of the vital needs of Missoula. These include providing good construction jobs and giving hotel workers a chance to organize and find their voice to make their jobs good jobs.

Another campaign is the Good Jobs Missoula project. This effort seeks to engage and empower low-wage food workers across city. Since the program’s launch, Good Jobs Missoula is working with Missoula’s food workers developing their leadership capacity, to build a city-wide movement of low-wage food workers. Participants will direct the campaign to improve their jobs. And Good Jobs Missoula is developing community allies for support.

These and other efforts will be needed for the challenging work ahead. Just as organized workers over the past century developed the middle class by turning bad jobs into good ones, we can again prosper as a people by the transformation of service sector jobs into good jobs.

Mark Anderlik President, Missoula Area Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO