Beaten Down, Worked Up. The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor


Category:  News & Politics

By:  john-russell  •  one month ago  •  19 comments

Beaten Down, Worked Up. The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor


Beaten Down, Worked Up. The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor

by Stephen Greenhouse



Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.
inauguration speech as AFL-CIO president, August 1, 1995, Chicago


There’s a hugely important but often overlooked phenomenon that goes far to explain why so many bad things are happening to American workers, and that is the decades-long decline in worker power, both in the workplace and in politics and policy. Many industrial relations experts put it another way: they say there has been an undeniable decline in worker voice, the effective ability of workers to speak up and the willingness of many employers to listen to what workers have to say.

In their groundbreaking 1984 book on labor relations, What Do Unions Do?, Richard B. Freeman and James L. Medoff stressed the importance of voice, writing, “Voice means discussing with an employer conditions that ought to be changed, rather than quitting the job.” As a result of the decline in worker voice in recent decades, there is far less of a brake to stop businesses from doing what they will vis-à-vis their workers, whether it’s freezing pay or insisting that employees work sixteen-hour days.

As workers’ power has waned, many corporations have adopted practices that were far rarer or largely unheard of three and four decades ago: hiring hordes of  unpaid interns, expecting many workers to toil sixty or seventy hours a week, illegally treating many workers as independent contractors rather than as employees (and thus avoiding any obligation to contribute to their Social Security benefits or pay them overtime). In recent years, far more companies have reduced employees’ mobility by making them sign non-compete clauses, with some employers requiring even fast-food workers and summer camp counselors to pledge not to work for competitors. And far more than in prior decades, many retailers and restaurants—in a practice known as “clopening”—are ordering employees to work until 11 p.m. or midnight to close up and then return at 7 or 8 a.m. to open up, meaning those workers are lucky to get five hours of sleep. And economists have recently documented how the excessive power of a few consolidated employers is holding down wages, a phenomenon known as monopsony. For instance, if one or two hospital chains dominate a metropolitan area, that might limit the ability of nurses or nurses’ aides to move to other jobs in search of higher wages.

This lack of worker leverage helps explain what might be called America’s anti-worker exceptionalism. The United States is the only industrial nation in which workers don’t have a legal right to paid sick days (although several states and cities have enacted paid sick leave laws). Similarly, the United States is the only industrial nation not to give workers a legal right to any vacation, paid or unpaid. In France, by contrast, workers have a legal right to six weeks’ paid vacation a year; in Britain, twenty-eight days; in Germany, four weeks. The United States is also the only industrial nation that doesn’t have a law guaranteeing paid maternity leave; the average in European nations is more than twenty weeks. The only other countries in the world without paid maternity leave laws are Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and a few Pacific island states.

The decline in workers’ bargaining power is of course closely related to the diminished might of America’s labor unions. Labor unions represent just6.4 percent of America’s private-sector workers and 10.5 percent of workers overall. That’s the lowest percentage in more than a century, and down from35 percent in the 1950s. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) union has dwindled to 430,000 members from its peak of 1.5 million in 1979. The once-mighty International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) shrank so much that it merged with several other unions, and its name and fame have faded into history. “No one who looks at the American economy of the last generation can fail tobe struck by the precipitous decline of organized labor,” Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in Winner-Take-All Politics. “While there are many ‘progressive’ groups in the American universe of organized interests, labor is the only major one focused on the broad economic concerns of those with modest incomes. ”By uniting workers’ collective power, unions have made many important advances for American workers—advances that many now take for granted.

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, through landmark contracts with General Motors, Ford, and other industrial giants, unions played a decisive role in building the biggest, richest middle class the world had ever seen. Unions also played a pivotal role in winning enactment of the federal minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, occupational safety laws, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s. (There is much truth to the bumper sticker: “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.”)Union members earn 13.6 percent more than comparable nonunion workers ,after adjusting for education, age, and other factors. Seventy-five percent of unionized workers participate in employer-sponsored health plans, compared with just 49 percent of nonunion workers. Eighty-three percent of union members have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, while just 49 percent of nonunion workers do. Unions also help reduce the gender pay gap. Women workers in unions are paid, on average, ninety-four cents to the dollar paid to unionized male workers, while nonunion women earn seventy-eight cents to the dollar compared with nonunion working men. African American union members earn on average 16.4 percent more than comparable nonunion black workers. Unions have played an important, but often unappreciated role in reducing inequality; the decades when unions were strongest—the 1940s through 1970s—were the decades when there was the least income inequality.

One study found that the decline in union power and density since 1973 explains a third of the increase in wage inequality among American men and a fifth of the increased inequality among women. Two economists at the International Monetary Fund found that the “the decline in unionization” (and the concomitant decline in worker bargaining power) “explains about half of the rise in incomes for the richest 10 percent” in advanced industrial nations and about half the increase in those nations’ main measure of income inequality. Unions often reduce inequality by pushing for higher pay for typical workers, more generous Social Security benefits, higher taxes on the rich, and greater restraints on executive pay.


jrDiscussion - desc
Professor Principal
1  author  JohnRussell    one month ago
As worker power has declined, we’ve seen many unfortunate trends for

From 1948 to 1973, worker productivity and hourly pay rose in tandem (productivity increased 95.7 percent during that span, while hourly compensation climbed 90.9 percent). But from 1973 to 2016, a period of waning union and worker power, productivity rose over six times as fast as compensation. This means that workers are receiving a far smaller share of the increased productivity that they’re providing to their employers.

Hard though it may be to believe, average hourly pay for American workers remains below the levels of 1973, after accounting for inflation.

CEOs at the largest 350 corporations make 312 times as much as the average worker, up from 59 times in 1990 and 20 times in 1965.

Nearly fifty million American workers earn less than $15 an hour. For a full-time worker, that
translates to $31,200 a year.

The top 1 percent of households received 22 percent of the nation’s income in 2015, up from 9 percent in 1984. That’s the highest percentage the 1 percent has received since the 1920s. The top
10 percent now receive nearly half of the nation’s income (50 percent in 2015), up from one-third in the 1970s. (That of course leaves less for the bottom 90 percent of households.)

Americans average 1,780 hours of work per year. That’s 70 hours per year more than the Japanese, 100 hours (two and a half workweeks) more than British workers, 266 hours (six and a half workweeks) more than French workers, and 424 hours (ten and a half workweeks) more than German workers.

For college graduates who entered the workforce in June 2018, average hourly pay ($20.37) was just 2.5 percent higher than seventeen years earlier, after adjusting for inflation. For high school graduates with no college credits, average hourly pay ($11.85 for entry-level jobs) was actually down 1.4 percent from 2001.

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 is 37 percent below its 1968 level, after factoring in inflation.
Indeed, the ratio of America’s federal minimum wage to median hourly income is the lowest among thirty-six industrial nations—the ratio is just 35 percent in the United States, compared with 61 percent in France and 49 percent in Britain.
Sophomore Silent
1.1  Gazoo  replied to  JohnRussell @1    one month ago

You’re pro labor?

Professor Principal
1.1.1  author  JohnRussell  replied to  Gazoo @1.1    one month ago

Of course. 

Sophomore Silent
1.1.2  Gazoo  replied to  JohnRussell @1.1.1    one month ago

Then how can you support democrats? How can anyone that is pro labor support a group that is so pro illegal? Who do illegals compete with for jobs? The poor mostly, and middle class. How does bringing in millions of illegals help the working class and unions? I’m sure you’ve heard of cesar chavez? He was very anti illegal because he realized illegals took work from, and lowered the wages of his brothers and sisters. The same holds true today. 
This is just to head off what i expect will be one of your responses. This has nothing to do with race. This has everything to do with putting Americans (of all color) first. 

Professor Principal
1.1.3  author  JohnRussell  replied to  Gazoo @1.1.2    one month ago

I am pro comprehensive immigration reform. 

Immigrants are not the problem to organized labor.  Company owners and managers are.  Union busting. 

Masters Guide
1.1.4  Drakkonis  replied to  JohnRussell @1.1.3    one month ago

I am pro-union. At least to a large degree, but as I am in a union I'm also well aware of the bad side of unions. In my opinion, unions are as big a threat to unions as Wall Street. The union I'm in pretty much sucks in my opinion. The idea that a union has to protect a parasite simply because the parasite pays union dues is stupid. When you have a guy that is not only a drain on the company but actually increases the work load of union brothers and sisters the union should be the first in line to get the guy out of there. But that isn't the way it works, apparently. 

Further, the griever, shop steward or whatever a particular union calls the position, told me that it is his job to get as many people hired at the company as possible, since it strengthens the union, whether the company needs them or not. Rather than have the guys do the work they are supposed to do, they slow roll everything to make it seem as if there aren't enough employees to get all the work done. That's dishonest as heck and I don't want any part of it. In my opinion, if a union isn't pulling its weight, the company should be able to fire the union and hire another one. 

A union is supposed to be a fair days pay for a fair days work. To be treated fairly. It isn't supposed to be a means of extortion, which is what many unions are. Case in point, dock workers unions. What those guys get paid is insane for the work that they do. And they get that pay because ports have little choice in the matter if they want goods to flow through the port, not because they're worth it. I saw in one article that their shop stewards get something like $250,000 a year for just walking around and "supervising" or whatever. That just isn't right. 

Professor Principal
1.1.5  author  JohnRussell  replied to  Drakkonis @1.1.4    one month ago

Organized labor is not perfect, but it is the only way workers have of forcing fair treatment from corporations, owners , and managers. 

The task is to improve unions, not say we dont need them. 

Sophomore Silent
1.1.6  Gazoo  replied to  JohnRussell @1.1.3    one month ago

I disagree. We have a limited number of jobs. What happens when you flood the labor pool with illegals? Wages go down. More Americans out of work because illegals work for less pay. And what happens to Americans that need public assistance when illegals are allowed to pour in? More competition for limited resources. Unless you want to raise taxes but how does that help the working class! It doesn’t. 
allowing illegals in by the millions plays right into the hands of people you claim are the problem. Company management. And i agree, they are part of the problem, BUT, so are unions themselves. Unions get greedy. Many times their demands are not sustainable. There has to be a balance and neither labor or management seeks that balance, this is coming from a union member.
dems have claimed for decades to be the party of the working man and woman, and for a time that was true. Not anymore. Flood the country with unskilled people needing public assistance, higher taxes, and higher fuel costs does not help the working person, union or not.
America and Americans first!

Sophomore Silent
1.1.7  Gazoo  replied to  Drakkonis @1.1.4    one month ago

“The idea that a union has to protect a parasite simply because the parasite pays union dues is stupid. When you have a guy that is not only a drain on the company but actually increases the work load of union brothers and sisters the union should be the first in line to get the guy out of there. But that isn't the way it works, apparently.”

i agree. I’ve seen it many times. We call guys like that hall trash because they are constantly getting laid off because the do subpar work and very little of it. The funny thing is, these guys are hardcore union yet their crappy work ethic is detrimental to the union. They should be shown the door but like you said, the local defends these slackers. 

Masters Guide
1.1.8  Drakkonis  replied to  JohnRussell @1.1.5    one month ago
Organized labor is not perfect, but it is the only way workers have of forcing fair treatment from corporations, owners , and managers. 

I don't think you actually concern yourself with this particular issue. I think your only concern with unions is that, politically, they tend to be aligned with your political views. It's just a power block to you, in other words. 

Professor Principal
2  author  JohnRussell    one month ago   /daily/entry/uber-and-lyft-drivers-stage-nationwide-strike-for-right-to-unionize

Economics in Brief: Uber and Lyft Drivers Stage Nationwide Strike for Right to Unionize

Solcyre Burga &  Oscar Perry Abello   July 23, 2021 7-9 minutes

Uber and Lyft Drivers Stage Nationwide Strike for Right to Unionize and Better Pay

Uber and Lyft drivers have staged a nationwide strike under the leadership of  Rideshare Drivers United , an organization asking for a fair and sustainable rideshare industry, Bloomberg   reports .

Drivers are demanding better pay and pushing for the passage of the  Protecting the Right to Organize Act , which would provide workers with the right to unionize. This legislation has passed in the House and awaits a vote in the Senate.

The coalition asked drivers and passengers to boycott the app on Wednesday in major cities including Los Angeles, Boston, Pittsburgh, among others. While there is no official estimate as to how many drivers participated, the Los Angeles Times  reports   that during the strike Uber was offering $16 bonuses for drivers to pick up rides at LAX.

Rideshare app drivers have long criticized the companies’ policies for years as drivers are labelled as independent contractors instead of employees 一 meaning they do not receive any benefits such as sick leave or health insurance. Workers also pay for their own fuel and car maintenance.

Next City  previously reported   on The Drivers Cooperative, a driver-owned ride-hailing platform that aims to end the exploitative practices of the taxi industry, and has been operating since May 30. Each driver owns a share of the company, and is able to vote on new leadership and business decisions, Fast Company   adds .

The Drivers Cooperative also distributes the profits back to their drivers (not high level executives or shareholders) 一 allowing them to earn 8-10% more on trips than Uber and Lyft drivers.

Professor Principal
3  Kavika     one month ago

Unions were instrumental in building America’s middle class. I hope to see them aging strength (numbers) again.

Greg Jones
PhD Expert
4  Greg Jones    one month ago

The unions got greedy which led to their own demise.

Professor Principal
5  author  JohnRussell    one month ago   /news/national-politics/the-race/wage-theft-is-the-costliest-crime-in-america

Wage theft is the costliest crime in America

Alexa Liacko 4-5 minutes   8/26/2021

DENVER, Colo. — A day’s work should mean a day’s pay, but for many Americans, that simple transaction is a complicated ordeal.

“It's a cancer in our industry, and it's everywhere you look,” said Juan Arellano of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

He’s talking about wage theft.

Wage theft is taking billions of dollars out of families’ pockets each year. One Denver construction worker, who asked we call him Guzman, never received $4,000 he earned.

He spoke with us in Spanish, and fellow Council representative, Edgar Jauregui, translated his experience.

“When he tried to cash his checks, they started bouncing at the banks, and it was impossible to cash,” Jauregui translated for Guzman.

Guzman is now a father of two, and he was worried speaking out would keep him from getting jobs in the future, but he decided he couldn’t stay silent about the crime that’s hurt his family.

“I felt sad because at that moment, I had my wife pregnant, and I was so stressed out. I felt like the world was crumbling down on me, and most of all, it isn't fair. I had to find a way to survive,” said Guzman.

So, he reached out to his union for help. He found Arellano, and Jauregui prepared to jump into action.

“It is a crime, and the problem is the people, they get used to it. The problem is they're not, they don't have the knowledge,” said Jauregui of why many workers don’t report wage theft in the first place.

Another big reason workers don’t speak up is fear.

“When this situation happens, they're afraid,” said Jauregui. “They don't want to talk. They think there's going to be some kind of like revenge against them.”

There are dozens of ways wage theft can happen. It can be as simple as working overtime but getting paid your normal hourly rate. It can also involve being asked to work off the clock, not getting worker’s compensation for an injury, or not being paid for a meal break.

In Guzman’s case of lost wages, he took his employer to court and won. However, more than a year after the legal victory, he hasn’t seen a dime.

“It does us no good to hold that up as a trophy when in the end, we have no money,” said Guzman.

As he waits, hoping to one day see his wages, this is happening to millions of more workers.

Wage theft is the costliest crime in the country. It costs the country $15 billion in lost wages per year. That number is more than car thefts, burglaries, and other larcenies—combined.

The extreme prevalence of this issue is why Jauregui and Arellano visit job sites throughout Colorado every day.

They use a GoPro to capture videos of worksite conditions, to document wage theft cases, and to educate workers about wage theft before it occurs.

“It does take documentation,” said Arellano. “There is a great level of difficulty to prove, but we can get there. We can get there to where, you know, the people responsible for this can be tried and brought to justice."

It’s justice Arellano hopes to see more often with the help of a new law passed in his city.

Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer passed a bill to make wage theft under $2,000 a crime.

“The vast majority of the cases are under $2,000 and are never prosecuted,” said Sawyer. “So, that's extremely concerning.”

She said she believes the hundreds of cases that are reported each year under $2,000 are just the tip of the iceberg, and she hopes this law will encourage other workers to come forward.

“Families are struggling to put food on the table in Denver. They’re struggling to put food on the table all over the country.”

But with some help, these families could get the living they already earned and have the life they deserve.

“We've got to act to support them and do what we can, not only because if you work, you should get paid for that work, but because also we recognize the extraordinary pressure these families are under right now,” Sawyer said. “We're not going to allow for this anymore, and we're going to stand up for our workers.”

If you think you’ve been a victim of wage theft, report the crime immediately. Resources   HERE   can help you figure out if you’ve been impacted and how to fight for your wages.

Copyright 2021 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Senior Principal
6  Nerm_L    one month ago

Then there are teachers' unions whose activities extend far beyond working conditions and wages.  Large police departments are typically organized and represented by unions which has affected oversight and has blocked reforms in law enforcement.

About a third of the public sector work force is unionized while about 6 pct of the private sector work force is unionized.  Union activities really are influencing the quality of services provided by the government and impeding reforms in the public sector.  Unions today are about exerting political influence rather than about addressing working conditions and wages.

The nature of work has also changed dramatically since the 1950s.  We aren't a nation of factory workers any longer.  Many jobs today would have been considered managerial work in the 1950s.  And freelance and gig work is done by independent business operators; they work for themselves by choice.  Hiring an independent plumber or HVAC tech is gig work.  The transition toward independent business operators doing freelance and gig work suggests we need business reforms as much as we we labor reforms.

Unions are thriving in the public sector.  But that's because the nature of work in the public sector has not changed that much since the 1950s.  The private sector work force has experienced disruptive innovations that has dramatically changed the nature of work.

Professor Principal
6.1  author  JohnRussell  replied to  Nerm_L @6    one month ago
And freelance and gig work is done by independent business operators; they work for themselves by choice. 

Gig workers are exploited. They should be able to organize so they can act as one in negotiations with management. 

Senior Principal
6.1.1  Nerm_L  replied to  JohnRussell @6.1    one month ago
Gig workers are exploited. They should be able to organize so they can act as one in negotiations with management. 

Freelance and gig work is done by independent business operators; freelancers are their own employers.  Organizing gig workers rubs up against antitrust laws.  Organizing independent businesses into a syndicate or consortium for the purpose of bid rigging and price fixing is illegal.

Weakening antitrust laws for the benefit of gig workers opens the door for a lot of illegal shenanigans by businesses that can afford the legal retainers of freelance lawyers.  

Once upon a time, union halls were places to find gig work.  And unions exploited gig workers, too.

Professor Principal
7  TᵢG    one month ago

Not surprising really, but unions were a response to exploitative businesses (the kind of practices that inspired Marx).   In the beginning of the industrial age especially, we would see businesses paying crap wages, child labor, etc.   The notion of squeezing the workforce to increase profits was as acceptable as was the earlier practice of cotton-field slaves in the South.   Left alone, forces will exploit.

The unions successfully countered this exploitation.   They leveraged their own power (organization of the labor force with clear objectives) to negotiate better working conditions.   Over time they helped achieve a fair balance.

But post the 1950s this balance started to shift again but in favor of the unions.   This continued to the point of exploitation by the unions of the businesses.   Even large businesses like GM (which was, in the 1970s, the largest corporation in the world) succumbed to the collective force of the unions it depended upon.  

The point is that power almost invariably leads to exploitation.   Yet another nod to our framers who devised a constitution which, albeit imperfectly, systemically divides power to mitigate one faction overpowering the other.    In the case of organized labor, the balance of power will shift between labor and businesses over time until society evolves to a point where labor and business are integrated (e.g. socialism per Marx) or when (if) we evolve to a society where technology enables everyone to pursue their ambitions without having to work to survive (imagine Star Trek society).

In the meantime, the reality we all occupy (likely for the rest of our lives) has businesses and unions, both as titans, continuing to fight each other for advantage.   Personally, I think large corporations have the upper hand in this fight and will use technology to strengthen their positions against labor.

Professor Principal
8  Texan1211    one month ago

Unions have done some good things, and continue to do them. That isn't to say that unions only do good things.

I believe anyone who wants to should be able to join a union, and also believe that anyone who doesn't want to join one shouldn't be forced to against their will.

Isn't that all about personal choice, and who knows better what is good for the worker than the worker him- or her-self?


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