Posts Tagged ‘Workers’

What could a new kind of labor movement be?

April 10, 2015

Sam Seder’s interview of Thomas Geoghegan is about 45 minutes long. 

The rest of the running time is a repeat.


Thomas Geoghegan says American labor needs a new strategy, which would include the following.

  • The right to join a labor union or engage in labor action should be a civil right.
  • Workers should have the right to form unions that represent only their members, instead of a government-determined bargaining unit.
  • On the other hand, unions should strive for works councils in big organizations, which would represent all the employees and not just the union members.

American labor unions have been unable to stop “right to work” laws from being enacted in state after state—even in Michigan.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalThese laws forbid labor-management contracts in which an employer hires only labor union members, or requires new employees to pay dues to a union.  Yet, by law, the union contract must cover all the employees in the bargaining unit, regardless of whether they join or pay dues.

Thomas Geoghegan wrote in Only One Thing Can Save Us that it may not be possible to stop right-to-work from becoming national law.  To the average person, it doesn’t seem right that they should be forced to join an organization or make payments to it against their will.  And as fewer and fewer people have any experience with unions, the counter-argument becomes harder to make.

But if unions lose that battle, as well they might, all is not lost.  It is much easier to make the case for the right to join a labor union if there never are any circumstances in which union membership is compulsory.


Replaceable workers or productive workers?

April 7, 2015

CEOs of American companies complain of a lack of skilled workers and the lack of job training.

But if you look at what most of them do, and not what they say, they don’t really want productive workers.  They want replaceable workers.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalSo argues Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer, in his outstanding new book, ONLY ONE THING CAN SAVE US: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.

One obvious example of this is Boeing’s decision to have its new Dreamliner made by inexperienced, low-paid workers in South Carolina rather than members of the International Association of Machinists in Seattle.   They had production and quality problems in South Carolina, but their priority evidently was to get away from the union.

Now the same management philosophy is being applied to public schools, universities and hospitals.   Well-trained, well-paid professionals are harassed, laid off and replaced with inexperienced newcomers.

If you define efficiency as that which is most convenient for managers, there is something to be said for this.  An ignorant subordinate is less likely to give you an argument than an experienced and skilled subordinate.  It is easier to treat people as replaceable parts if they lack knowledge and opinions.


How to give American workers a pay raise

March 24, 2015

incomegrowthdistributionThe majority of American workers are getting less and less benefit from the growth of the American economy.

The pro-labor Economic Policy Institute notes that, since 1979, the U.S. economy (gross domestic product) has grown by 149 percent and productivity has grown 64 percent, but actual wages of most American workers, adjusted for inflation, are flat or declining.

Recently the EPI published an 11-point program for boosting American wages.   Here it is, with my comments.

1. Raise the minimum wage.

2. Update overtime pay rules.

3. Strengthen collective bargaining rights.

Stronger labor unions give workers power over their wages and working conditions independently of laws and regulations.  This is the most important change and a key to all the other changes.

4. Regularize undocumented workers.

Hiring unauthorized immigrants and relocating business activities to low-wage countries are two ways of doing the same thing—escaping the requirements of American labor law.   It is almost like competing with slave labor.  Since it is not feasible to deport the millions of unauthorized immigrants now in the United States, the only choice is to bring them under protection of the law.

5. Provide earned sick leave and paid family leave.


‘Never tell anyone how much you make’

June 9, 2014

Another of my father’s favorite admonitions was that I should never tell anyone what my income was.   If I did, some people would envy me because of how much I made, and others would look down on me because of how little I made.

This is one of the few instances in which I think my father was wrong.  You can’t stand up for your interests if you don’t know where you stand in regard to others.

stock-vector-vector-employee-or-boss-presenting-a-paycheck-illustration-5251492I broke that rule when I joined the Newspaper Guild, the labor union representing reporters on the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle.  I agreed with the Guild that there was no way to determine whether we were being paid fairly until and unless we knew what each of us were paid.

I was surprised to learn that my salary was on the upper end of the scale.  I was paid more than a number of reporters that I thought were better than I was.

The probable reason was that, when I applied for the job, I was undecided whether I really wanted to leave my old job, and so, almost unconsciously, negotiated a high starting salary.   Pay raises were usually a percentage of base pay, so my higher starting salary meant my income was higher than it otherwise would have been for the whole 24 years I worked for the D&C.

I didn’t think I was overpaid; I thought they were underpaid.  But it was interesting as an example of how random a pay system can be even when, like ours, it is supposedly based on merit.

A labor reporter named Steven Pearlstein wrote a good article on this topic for the Washington Post.  He pointed out that many companies discourage or even forbid employees to discuss their pay among each other.  At the same time corporations conduct wage surveys and share wage information so as to avoid getting into a bidding war for good employees.

Knowledge is power, whether for the employer or the employee.  I think it makes sense for employees to share information readily with each other, not so readily with future employers.

My idea of a just society is one in which every person could post his or her annual income, and the sources of it, on a bulletin board, and nobody would have any reason to feel embarrassed at what was revealed.

What happened to the labor movement?

May 1, 2014

Hat tip to Bill Harvey.


Overcoming the Iron Law of Wages

September 4, 2013

EPI-low-wage-workers-reality-8-28-2013-2-54-01.pngOne of the arguments against raising the minimum wage is that employers won’t hire people if the wage is higher than the value of the employee’s work.

Obviously this principle is true.  In fact, an employer will not hire someone unless the wage is less than the value of the employee’s work to the employer.  Otherwise the employer would make no profit.

Under conditions of economic competition, there is pressure to keep wages as low as possible.  This is especially true for franchise and subcontract businesses, when the franchisers and the buyers have the economic power to squeeze their profit margins as low as possible.

Workers have no power, as separate individuals, to prevent wages from being forced down to subsistence level.   There’s a name for this process, the Iron Law of Wages, which was formulated by the economist David Ricardo 300 years ago.

The reason that, contrary to Ricardo, wages have risen over the century is that sometimes skilled workers are scarce and command a higher wage,  sometimes workers have been able to organize unions and bargain collectively, and sometimes governments have set minimum wages to limit how far wages can be pushed down.

Certain libertarians and free-market theorists oppose a role for government or even for labor unions.  They say wages should be negotiated between free individuals.  When an individual business owner is hiring an individual worker, that may make sense.

When a worker is up against a powerful collective organization, such as a corporation, then the worker needs something to equalize bargaining power.   And in the case of fast-food franchises, workers are not up against the individual business owners.  They are up against the corporations that set the terms for the franchisees.   A higher federal minimum wage would change the equation.


Why do so many U.S. workers hate their jobs?

June 26, 2013
Gallup Poll Engaged Disengaged Unhappy Workers

Double click to enlarge.

With workloads increasing, wages and salaries stagnant or worse and the gap between workers and management ever-increasing, it shouldn’t be surprising that a recent Gallup poll finds 70 percent of American workers are unhappy in their jobs.

What is surprising, at least to me, is the reason—not wages, hours or benefits, but the way they are treated by their bosses.  Also surprising is how discontent is spread up and down the economic scale.  Corporate managers and professionals are almost as unhappy as low-level factory and service workers.

Gallup estimated that out of the 100 million Americans with full time jobs, about 30 million are “engaged,” meaning that they are actively trying to do a good job; 50 million are “not engaged,” meaning they are doing what they are asked to do and nothing more; and 20 million are “disengaged,” meaning they are actively hostile and costing their employers money.

As Timothy Egan wrote in the New York Times, it doesn’t cost much to praise good work, provide opportunities for learning and growth and be open to suggestions.  Companies such as Costco that value their employees frequently outperform companies such as Walmart that don’t.  So why don’t they?

I think part of the explanation lies in what a couple of management scholars called “stupidity management.”   The top management in such an organization sets a narrow, usually quantifiable, goal and insists that it not be questioned.  A low-level manager in such an organization is required to push people to achieve unreasonable goals.  Being in that kind of position certainly would not improve my disposition.

Click on Why most Americans hate their jobs (or are just ‘checked out’) for details about Gallup’s findings in The Week.

Click on Checking Out for comment by Timothy Egan in the New York Times.

Click on ON MOTIVATION for comment on Gin and Tacos.

Click on Costco: doing well by acting decently for the benefit of being a good boss.

Click on The stupidity theory of organizations for a possible explanation of why more companies aren’t like Costco.

Hat tips to Eschaton and Balloon Juice.


Robert Reich on Labor Day 2011

August 30, 2011

Double click to enlarge

Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and now is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote the following a couple of days ago.

Labor Day is traditionally a time for picnics and parades.  But this year is no picnic for American workers, and a protest march would be more appropriate than a parade.

Robert Reich

Not only are 25 million unemployed or underemployed, but American companies continue to cut wages and benefits.  The median wage is still dropping, adjusted for inflation.  High unemployment has given employers extra bargaining leverage to wring out wage concessions.

All told, it’s been the worst decade for American workers in a century.  According to Commerce Department data, private-sector wage gains over the last decade have even lagged behind wage gains during the decade of the Great Depression (4 percent over the last ten years, adjusted for inflation, versus 5 percent from 1929 to 1939).


Tough times for the American worker

September 7, 2010

Over Labor Day weekend I read Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. It was published in 2008, so it doesn’t deal with the results of the current Great Recession.  Rather it covers the condition of the working class of the United States in supposedly good times – the alleged prosperity we’re trying to get back to.

I knew the story in broad outline – the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base, wage stagnation, the loss of job security, rising debt – but Greenhouse’s reporting, with many poignant individual stories and backed up by statistics, brought home to me just how bad things are.

Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, famously said that what American workers want is “more.” What they are getting is more stress, more hours of work, more unpaid overtime, more insecurity, more debt, more years to work until retirement, but not more pay or benefits.

I was surprised, which may show my naivete, at the amount of lawbreaking by employers.  Greenhouse tells story after story of workers being forced to work overtime and through their lunch hours without pay, of workers being dismissed on trumped-up charges because they were injured on the job and became financial liabilities, of workers being locked in to their workplaces like the women who died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

There are two aspects to the story.  There is what I call the Adam Smith story, which is about the need to adapt to a highly competitive global economy, and the Karl Marx story, which is about class warfare and redistribution of income upward.

You can’t ignore either aspect.  American industry did grow complacent after World War Two.  The United States had the world’s only intact industrial base, and, for about 30 years, our industries had no serious competitors. There used to be an urban legend about the city of “Usa, Japan” which existed for the purpose of being able to stamp products “Made in USA.”  Corporate management grew complacent, as did government and organized labor.  The U.S. government, instead of trying to strengthen international competitors such as Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and IBM Corp., broke up their market power through anti-trust suits.  Organized labor, all too often, resisted new technology and clung to outmoded job classifications and work rules.

But in fact the U.S. economy is not doing all that badly.  It is just the human beings in the economy who are struggling.   Corporate profits, national output and productivity continued to grow in the 2000s, as do the incomes of Americans in the highest brackets.  But wages were flat, benefits were eroding and the majority of workers were under increased pressure to work harder and longer, even in a time of economic expansion.