Working man’s blues

Wages plummeting in the nation’s No. 1 job-producing economy? What’s going on here?

The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada reported this month that median pay in the Silver State fell from $11.56 an hour in 1989 to $10.72 in 1998. Adjusted for inflation, the 7.3 percent decline was the third biggest in the country.

Assuming PLAN’s calculations are correct, the obvious question is why? Unfortunately, PLAN hasn’t connected the dots. The 32-page study simply jumps to the predictable prescriptions: raising the minimum wage, enacting “living wage” laws, facilitating union organizers and creating “reasonable tax policy (tax hikes).”

Susan Chandler, an associate professor of social work at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of the report titled “Working Hard, Living Poor,” calls the salary slide “a sure sign of trouble.”

“The growing divide between rich and poor is a serious economic and social problem,” she writes. “The United States was built on the belief that hard work should pay off and that everyone who contributes his or her labor to the common good should reap its reward.”

Glenn Arnodo, political director for the Culinary Union, concurs, saying “the statistics would be much bleaker if it wasn’t for the union.’’

Also predictably, the business community has a different view.

“As far as the restaurant sector, I’d have to question the conclusions,’’ said Justin Doucette, chairman of the Nevada Restaurant Association. He says his industry is constantly creating new positions and upgrading others, which yield higher wages.

Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association, is blunter. “The Legislature pretty much writes off what PLAN says,” Bacon notes.

But Chandler and PLAN are onto something when they point out the effects of a rising cost of living and shrinking employee benefits. This fiscal vise squeezes especially hard on the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

And why is this happening? One word: immigration.

While Nevada generates lots of jobs, the state is importing tens of thousands of workers every year. These newcomers grease the low-wage engine that makes Nevada’s service economy hum.

Ranking among the top six states in foreign immigration, Nevada’s Hispanic population is booming, as evidenced by the proliferation of bilingual billboards, ballots and classrooms. But, the ongoing influx of semi-skilled workers from south of the border is driving down wages. In Las Vegas, roofers and dry wallers actually make less than they did 20 years ago. Today, this workforce is almost totally Hispanic.

Demographers estimate that there are as many as 50,000 illegal aliens in Clark County. And while Northern Nevada hasn’t reached that level, percentages are on the rise from Elko to Tonopah.

Because roughly two-thirds of adult Mexican immigrants have not completed high school, according to U.S. Census figures, they compete for jobs on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, where PLAN and Chandler see the most strain. Nevada is particularly vulnerable on this score because its share of the service sector workforce is nearly double the national average.

Yet PLAN and its union coalition never once identify immigration as a key contributor to wage stagnation. That wouldn’t be politically correct, when immigrants make up an ever-growing percentage of union membership.

Business remains mum as well. What’s not to like when your wage slaves are bolstering the bottom line? Besides, someone else can pick up the tab for health care (emergency room visits) and Spanish-language DMV exams.

Meantime, Nevada’s corporate chieftains are getting fatter than ever. Chandler reports that compensation for top executives here jumped a whopping 443 percent during the 1990s.

“While low income and middle income families struggle, and are routinely retaliated against for organizing for better wages, CEOs continue to give themselves massive raises, further widening the gap between workers and corporate executives,” the report stated.