Annual Labor Issue



We have finally sent our September/October 2014 Annual Labor Issue out to e-subscribers (print subscribers should get it within a week to ten days).  And I just posted our cover story to the website, The Future of Work, Leisure, and Consumption in an Age of Economic and Ecological Crisis, which is an interview with economist and Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor.

Here is the editors’ note from p. 2 of the issue:

Unconventional Wisdom

Here are some bits of “conventional wisdom” about labor relations and work in the United States today:

  • It’s part of the America’s cultural DNA to “work hard and play hard.” American habits of work and consumption, in contrast with other rich capitalist countries (somehow France always comes up), are deeply ingrained in American culture. We would never accept more leisure at the expense of incomes or consumption.
  • U.S. workers have gotten hammered over the last decades, and globalization is the main culprit. The “good jobs” in manufacturing are gone—decimated first by low-wage import competition and then by offshoring—and are never coming back.
  • Cities and states have to compete to attract new investment, but with the right kinds of inducements they can draw in new businesses and new employment—most likely in services. The jobs may not be as good as the old manufacturing jobs, but at least they are jobs, and that additional income can spur further spending, investment, and employment, revitalizing local economies.

Well, the conventional wisdom here isn’t especially wise. Either it is missing critical parts of the story, or it gets some parts of the story just plain wrong.

As economist Juliet Schor points out in our interview, the American way of work, leisure, and consumption has changed over time—and not in little ways. The U.S. labor movement was historically ahead of Europe’s in the fight to shorten the working day. Until the Second World War, the rich capitalist countries were on a common trajectory of declining work hours. It’s only since then that the United States has diverged from that path. If these patterns have changed before, under particular historical circumstances, however, they can change again, under different circumstances. A new and better way of life—greater leisure, greater equality, more economic security, and greater environmental sustainability—is still possible.

As for the ongoing decline of U.S. labor, the story can’t be reduced to the impacts of globalization. Labor writer and activist Dan LaBotz explains what’s happened to labor in U.S. trucking over the past few decades: shrunken and weakened unions, declining wages, and long work hours (not all of them paid). Sound familiar? But trucking, unlike manufacturing industry, is not impacted directly by import competition or global sourcing. The changes in labor relations in the industry have been caused by changes in domestic labor relations and regulatory policy, among other things. That casts the effects of globalization (better said, “neoliberal” or “corporate” globalization) in a new light—as part of a larger story in which employers have succeeded, by various means, in tilting the balance of class power dramatically in their favor.

Cities are building new sports facilities, convention centers, and tourist attractions in search of post-industrial futures. Tourism and entertainment were supposed to be new growth industries that would make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs. Across the country, casino-gambling initiatives keep getting put on the ballot, basically with one promise—jobs. But according to economists Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart, anyone looking to casino gambling as the future needs to take a hard look at Atlantic City’s present. Casinos are closing, the city’s casino employment has been declining for the better part of two decades, and casino workers are facing the same familiar erosion of wages, job security, and working conditions.

The “conventional wisdom,” at its core, has an air of fatalism: The fault supposedly lies in the inexorable rise and fall of this or that industry, in disembodied global tides beyond our control, or—worst of all—in our own unchangeable natures. Wrong on all counts. The changes that created the world we know were wrought by human beings. The hard, messy, conflictive process of creating the future, too, will be the labor of human beings.

If you don’t subscribe to Dollars & Sense, we hope you will. (Click here to subscribe to the print edition or the electronic edition.) If you subscribe today, we can send you the Annual Labor Issue as a bonus issue.

–Chris Sturr

Report on Working Families Summit, Plus One More Link


(1) Tim Koechlin, “Inequality and the Case for Unions.”  In my Monday Links post, I meant to include this excellent piece by sometime D&S author Tim Koechlin, which appeared at Common Dreams and at Huffington Post. It’s a careful account of how workers as a whole benefit from strong unions. But I especially like the parts where Tim takes Democrats to task for not defending unions and workers’ rights.  “De-unionization is not an imperative of the global market.   It is a political choice.”  

(2) Report-Back from the White House Summit on Working Families by Deb Figart.  Deb Figart, who will have a piece in our July/August issue on so-called “alternative banking

Back to the Grassroots for Work-Family Balance

By Deborah M. Figart

The United States is the only developed country in the world without paid family leave. Access to paid leave is a key issue for working families. So are raising the minimum wage, universal pre-school, affordable child care, guaranteed paid sick leave, and paycheck fairness.

On Monday, June 23, 2014, President Obama brought together policymakers, business and labor leaders, academic experts, and activists for the White House Summit on Working Families. Besides President Obama, other speakers on the program included, for example, Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Maria Shriver (of the Shriver Report), Ellen Bravo (President and Founder of Family Values @ Work) and Gloria Steinem. Frustrated with the gridlock in Washington, the President is serving partly as “Organizer-in-Chief,” hoping to rally us to affect change at the local and state levels. The President argued that 21st-century families are struggling to survive with polices from the Mad Men era. (Actress Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan Harris on Mad Men, was in attendance).

Obama is also using executive powers to issue Executive Orders and memoranda where he can to affect the well-being of federal employees and workers employed by federal contractors. In April, on so-called Pay Inequity Day, President Obama issued an Executive Order that protects federal employees from retaliation if they disclose their salary. Salary transparency at the workplace helps reduce the gender- and race-based wage gaps. This is part of the Paycheck Fairness bill that has been stalled in several sessions of Congress. As outlined in his State of the Union address last January, the President, also by Executive Order, raised the wage for employees of federal contractors to $10.10 per hour.

Two companion policy announcements were made at the event. President Obama proclaimed that he had asked Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez to make available technical training grants to low-income individuals training for in-demand industries. That’s because low-income persons struggle to cover child care costs while attending federally-funded job training or retraining programs. Working parents, he argued, should not have to choose between taking care of their children and trying to train for a new career.

Second, President Obama intended to sign a presidential memorandum to require all federal agencies to expand access to flexible work schedules. That he is using the federal government as a model employer, hoping for a demonstration effect, is not insignificant. Katherine Archuleta, Director of the Office of Personnel Management, shared that the federal government is the nation’s largest employer with 2 million workers on the payroll. Only 15 percent of them work in the nation’s capital. The federal government already has a flexible workweek, so we will have to wait and see the details.

So there was much talk from business leaders and policymakers alike about the need for workplace flexibility. I listened to numerous first-hand accounts of beneficent employers who allowed their professionals to tele-commute from home. Or to leave early for a high school graduation, a Halloween parade, or a soccer game. But flexibility for whom? There was little discussion about how to extend flexibility to frontline service workers, most of whom are paid by the hour. What about employees who must remain on the line—in the factory, in food service, or in hotels and casinos, for example? And flexibility can have a high road or a low road. With the rise of the “precariat” (see Guy Standing’s book), will more part-time, contract, and contingent workers report to the work site only when called in from being on call? Or will employers increase full-time, year-round work and trust their employees to do the job?

Much of the focus was on asking us to advertise the return on investment of family-friendly policies. This message was delivered by Betsey Stevenson, member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. Such policies improve recruitment and retention as well as boost productivity and profits. The empirical evidence has been published as a series of new fact sheets by the Council of Economic Advisors, with titles such as “Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility,” “The Economics of Paid and Unpaid Leave,” and “Nine Facts About American Families and Work.”

Americans overwhelmingly support these policies. We just need to convert this to tangible progress. Valerie Jarrett, Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor, closed the White House Summit as she began it, with a message about going forward to make change: “This Summit is not just a moment, it’s a movement.” Other quotes from the Summit are available from the Center for American Progress, a chief sponsor along with the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Deborah M. Figart is a Professor of Education and Economics, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.