Tag Archives: unions

Thoughts For Labor Day

Labor Day would seem to be an appropriate time to consider the massive changes that have transformed the American workplace and diminished the bargaining power of workers–one major reason for the enormous gap between the rich and the rest. (It may also be an appropriate time to worry about the continuing replacement of human workers by automation.)

The changing face of the workplace–and especially the enormous growth of the “gig” economy– are barriers to organizing; the reality is that it is increasingly unlikely that unions will ever be the guarantors of fair employment practices that they once were.

If it is the case that most labor unions cannot be revived, the question becomes: how do we bring back workers’ power? How do we arrange the economic landscape so that workers can tell their employers to go take a hike if they offer insultingly low wages or dangerous working conditions? How do we level the playing field between employee and employer–especially large employers?

There is one answer, and it is audacious. We could empower workers (and solve a lot of other problems) by enacting a universal basic income. (Alfred Yang won’t be President, but he isn’t wrong.)

As an article in Forbes, of all unlikely places, pointed out, a universal basic income creates bargaining power by increasing all workers’ capacity to refuse a raw deal. The article points out that a UBI acts to increase workers’ “reserve price” — the minimum each worker must be paid before she is willing to accept a given job with particular working conditions.

A UBI is a more flexible means of improving the bargaining power of labor than either unionization or a minimum wage, because it allows workers to drive a harder bargain. It would also have the same effect on the economy as a higher minimum wage–it would increase both workers’ disposable income and economic demand.

A UBI appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Liberals champion it as a better approach than America’s inadequate and demeaning safety net programs; libertarians embrace it because it avoids legally-imposed, one-size-fits-all measures, allowing firms and individuals the freedom to negotiate the terms of their employment.

A Universal Basic Income would allow employees to walk away from bad employers, unsafe work environments, or undesirable jobs. Most importantly, it would restore a balance of power in the workplace–and as one observer has written, employment would no longer be modeled after “a peasant and feudal lord dynamic.”

I did a good deal of research on the merits and problems of a UBI for my recent book, and although I’m not unrealistic enough to think America’s lawmakers are likely to pass anything remotely similar during my lifetime, I was persuaded by the data that the general approach is not only sound, but–thanks to automation– will be absolutely necessary sooner than most people think.

Labor Day isn’t just a good time for a cookout. It’s also a good time to consider how badly labor has been screwed by the GOP’s war on unions and by the changes to the nature of work itself –and a good time to consider how best to repair the damage.

How Widespread Is This?

Common Dreams has posted an extensive review–or perhaps “report” is a more accurate term–of philosopher Elizabeth Anderson’s new book, “Private Government.” It is an examination of work environments in which millions of Americans apparently find themselves stripped of rights to a degree that I found shocking.

I don’t usually quote material at length, but in this case I’ll make an exception: here are the first two paragraphs of the Common Dreams report.

Corporate dictatorships—which strip employees of fundamental constitutional rights, including free speech, and which increasingly rely on temp or contract employees who receive no benefits and have no job security—rule the lives of perhaps 80 percent of working Americans. These corporations, with little or no oversight, surveil and monitor their workforces. They conduct random drug testing, impose punishing quotas and targets, routinely engage in wage theft, injure workers and then refuse to make compensation, and ignore reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape. They use managerial harassment, psychological manipulation—including the pseudo-science of positive psychology—and intimidation to ensure obedience. They fire workers for expressing leftist political opinions on social media or at public events during their off-hours. They terminate those who file complaints or publicly voice criticism about working conditions. They thwart attempts to organize unions, callously dismiss older workers and impose “non-compete” contract clauses, meaning that if workers leave they are unable to use their skills and human capital to work for other employers in the same industry. Nearly half of all technical professions now require workers to sign non-compete clauses, and this practice has spread to low-wage jobs including those in hair salons and restaurants.

The lower the wages the more abusive the conditions. Workers in the food and hotel industries, agriculture, construction, domestic service, call centers, the garment industry, warehouses, retail sales, lawn service, prisons, and health and elder care suffer the most. Walmart, for example, which employs nearly 1 percent of the U.S. labor force (1.4 million workers), prohibits casual conversation, which it describes as “time theft.” The food industry giant Tyson prevents its workers from taking toilet breaks, causing many to urinate on themselves; as a result, some workers must wear diapers. The older, itinerant workers that Amazon often employsare subjected to grueling 12-hour shifts in which the company electronically monitors every action to make sure hourly quotas are met. Some Amazon workers walk for miles on concrete floors each shift and repeatedly get down on their hands and knees to perform their jobs. They frequently suffer crippling injuries. The company makes injured employees, whom it fires, sign releases saying the injuries are not work-related. Two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries are victims of wage theft, losing an amount estimated to be as high as $50 billion a year. From 4 million to 14 million American workers, under threat of wage cuts, plant shutdowns or dismissal, have been pressured by their employers to support pro-corporate political candidatesand causes.

There is much more, and I encourage you to click through and read the review in its entirety.

At risk of oversimplification, I attribute this horrific situation to the decimation of American labor unions. When I was a girl (back in the Ice Age), unions were not only powerful, they often dominated (and sometimes even terrorized) the management of targeted enterprises, and were subject to legitimate criticisms for overreach.

That was then.

Now, after years of concerted attacks, passage of “right to work” laws encouraging free riders, and the explosive growth of the gig economy, unions are virtually non-actors, and without them, most workers have no bargaining power. If Anderson is correct–if 80% of America’s labor force has been stripped of what we think of as fundamental rights and even human dignity–it’s time to rethink both employment law and the American social contract.

Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Star….

RIP the Twinkie, a nauseating bit of plastic and grease masquerading as an edible treat.

Troublemakers to the end, the Twinkie and Ding-Dong and their “gang” of faux-foods have become yet another contested story in the ferocious and largely fact-free political debate over economic policy. According to the Right, the demise of the Hostess company was brought about by those dastardly unions–at least, the one that refused to accept a second major cut in wages and benefits in order to keep the struggling company afloat. Liberal blogs, on the other hand, place most of the blame on the venture capital company that bought the operation out of its last bankruptcy, pointing out that nowhere in the management structure it put in place can anyone be found who actually ever baked anything.

Now, I have to agree with the liberals that asking for a second round of wage concessions after tripling the pay of the CEO was bad form, if nothing else. Especially since the company was in bankruptcy. But come on, people–there’s plenty of blame to go around whenever a business fails. In this case, let’s choose capitalism.

Markets work because they satisfy consumer demands for goods and services. Markets are inherently risky because consumers often change their preferences, and companies that are not sufficiently nimble at meeting those changed preferences lose market share. At the end of the day, that’s what happened here.

When I still practiced law, I remember another lawyer remarking that the risks of the market system were the reason for the bankruptcy laws; in order to have a system that incentivizes risk, you need a mechanism that allows people to start over when those risks don’t pan out.

The market for snack food has–thankfully–changed. We Americans may be fatter than ever, but we’re also guiltier than ever about eating processed foods that we (now) know are terrible for us. Changes in the food industry have given us choices, including stuff that actually tastes good, and we’ve gotten more selective. The natural foods movement is growing. People actually read the nutritional panels that our socialist government requires.

It was time.

The Wrong Role Model

Let’s get real: if so-called “Right to Work” laws generated economic growth, Mississippi would be an epicenter of economic activity.

As Brian Howey notes, the current push for Right to Work is simply a continuation of the war on unions Daniels inaugurated soon after he himself was inaugurated; the sorts of jobs Indiana has been trying to grow–life sciences, biotech, etc.–aren’t union jobs anyway. But if we were to take Governor Daniels and Speaker Bosma at their word, their argument boils down to the contention that creating a “good business environment” requires that we be a low-wage,  low tax state.

A story may be instructive: Several years ago, Toyota was negotiating with three such states (all in the south) to locate a new plant. The states in question all had low wage workforces and low taxes; in addition, all were offering tax incentives. Toyota ended up going to Canada, and the economic development officers of the losing states were dumbfounded, because taxes were higher and no incentives were involved. Toyota’s explanation? The workforce was much more highly educated, and thanks to Canada’s “socialized” system, they wouldn’t need to provide healthcare.

When you look at independent research on right-to-work laws (i.e., research not sponsored by/paid for by either unions or Chambers of Commerce), there is absolutely no evidence that such laws affect job growth one way or the other. Once you control for the other factors that affect economic conditions, it appears that the only effect of such laws is to lower wages for both unionized and non-union workers.

The “liberty” argument for right-to-work is that no one should have to join a union in order to work. I agree–and under current law, they don’t. They do have to pay for services rendered by the union that benefit them–that is, their share of the cost of negotiation for wages and working conditions. That’s it. They don’t have to become a member, or support any other activities with which they disagree. The “liberty” argument against right-to-work is that employers should be free to bargain with whomever they choose–that the state should not have the power to dictate an owner’s otherwise lawful workplace policies and arrangements.

If we really want to promote job growth and a healthy economic environment, our focus should be on creating efficient, transparent state government, high-quality public schools, good public services (especially public transportation), and an improved quality of life.

Add in workers who have enough money to spend in the marketplace, and believe me, the employers will come.


Intriguing–and Disquieting–Analysis of Citizens United

A paper delivered at the Law and Society conference I attended raised some interesting points about the Citizens United decision that I haven’t seen elsewhere. While there has been a lot of criticism of the Court’s classification of corporations as people, this presentation asked a more basic (albeit related) question: what was the “speech” that the First Amendment protected?

The author argued pretty persuasively that what the founders intended was protection of an individual right of free expression. Later courts extended that to “expressive association”–meaning the right of individuals to associate with those who share their opinions and values. Thus Political Action committees should have the right to free speech, since the very act of banding together for a political purpose is in furtherance of individual expression.

By extending expressive freedom to corporations and unions formed for very different purposes–where the individuals involved arguably had very different political views–the Court arguably was disrespecting the very individual rights the First Amendment was protecting in favor of a newly created group right. Our system, however, has explicitly rejected recognition of “group rights.” For good or ill, in the United States, only individuals, singly or in expressive association, are “rights-bearing.” Citizens United thus represents a movement toward group rights at odds with the premises of our constitution.

Food for thought.