Archive for the ‘labor’ Category

The GDP is rising, Productivity is Increasing—and Still Workers Wages Fall

April 17, 2008

Former labor secretary Robert Reich recently blogged about those recent comments of Obama which have been so distorted over the last several days. The point was to take the media to task for their superficial coverage. An interesting read. But what really caught my eye was the way he introduced the topic.

I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 61 years ago. My father sold $1.98 cotton blouses to blue-collar women and women whose husbands worked in factories. Years later, I was secretary of labor of the United States, and I tried the best I could – which wasn’t nearly good enough – to help reverse one of the most troublesome trends America has faced: The stagnation of middle-class wages and the expansion of povety. Male hourly wages began to drop in the early 1970s, adjusted for inflation. The average man in his 30s is earning less than his father did thirty years ago. Yet America is far richer. Where did the money go? To the top. (Robert Reich, “Obama, Bitterness, Meet the Press, and the Old Politics” ; thanks to Richard Warnick for pointing it out)

This isn’t the first time recently someone has pointed out that the “a rising tide lifts all boats” bromide of the Right just doesn’t hold water. Barbara Ehrenreich discussed the point at length a couple months back in The Washington Post.

It begins to sound a bit naughty—all this talk about the need to “stimulate” the economy, as if we were discussing how to make a porn film. I don’t mean to trivialize our economic difficulties or the need for effective government intervention, but we have to face a disconcerting fact: For years now, that strange stimulus-crazed beast, the economy, has been going its own way, increasingly disconnected from the toils and troubles of ordinary Americans.

The economy, for example, has been expanding, at least until now, and growth is supposed to guarantee general well-being. As long as the gross domestic product grows, World Money Watch’s Web site assures us, “so will business, jobs and personal income.”

But hellooo, we’ve had brisk growth for the past few years, as the president has tirelessly reminded us, only without those promised increases in personal income, at least not for the poor and the middle class. According to a study just released by the Economic Policy Institute, real wages actually fell last year. Growth, some of the economists are conceding in perplexity, has been “decoupled” from widely shared prosperity. (Barbara Ehrenrich, “The Boom Was a Bust For Ordinary People,”

Market cheerleaders balk at the notion that there is anything wrong. They insist that we naysayers are just being pessimistic. The U.S. is doing fine! And sure, superficially things look good for the average person. The dollar figure of wages are up. People have continued to buy houses, cars, electronics, and all sorts of knick-knacks and trinkets from Wal-Mart. But look a little beneath the surface, and perhaps it is a different story. Benefits are being slashed. When adjusted for inflation, Reich and Ehrenrich are correct; the compensation of the average worker have decreased. Perhaps this is partly why the number of households where both parents work—something about which the “family values” crowd on the Right often complains, but about which they rarely seem to consider the roots. The illusion of prosperity is built on the record levels of consumer debt U.S. citizens have accumulated. Is that going to fly if we hit a prolonged economic recession? Seems a shaky foundation on which to claim that all is well in Zion.

Some people complain that the phrase “Social Justice,” is a misnomer. They aren’t entirely wrong. Strictly speaking, much of the agenda to which social justice refers has more to do with compassion than justice. But neither are they entirely correct. I think there is something fundamentally unjust when prosperity is shared only by a select few of those whose work made that prosperity possible. When the economy’s productivity rises and wealth increases, but the average worker upon whose labors the profits are made sees a dwindling share of the fruits of that harvest, that is a call for social justice.

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The Crandall Canyon Disaster and Market “self-correction”

April 1, 2008

In responding to my last post “The Triangle Waistshirt Fire,” one commentor assured me that the market is self-correcting and capable of protecting workers and the public. He raised the example of the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, suggesting that the the owner (Robert Murray) will somehow get his just desserts in the end. Perhaps he will. No mention was made of how the market will play a role in this, but no matter.

Ironically, today The Salt Lake Tribune reported on the status of the disaster fallout.

Crandall Canyon widow Wendy Black minced no words last September when she told a Senate committee: “It would have taken just one MSHA man doing his job to have saved my husband’s life.”

Her bitterness over the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s perceived failure to enforce laws protecting miners was reinforced Monday by an internal Labor Department audit that found local, regional and national deficiencies in MSHA’s handling of Crandall Canyon’s roof control plan (“Crandall: Labor audit confirms families’ fears”).

Sounds like any penalty or market “self correction” consequences Murray pays will be rather cold comfort to widows and fatherless children—not to mention the dead themselves.

It is worth noting that the Triangle Shirtwaist Company owners suffered no consequences for their disregard for the lives of their workers. With few prior regulations fully spelling out their responsibilities, they got off scott free. In fact, with the fire insurance payments, they made a tidy profit from the deaths of almost 150 people. Justice is supposed to be blind, but the illustrious market was apparently also deaf to the cries of the victims.

Also inspired by the Tribune’s article, Oldenburg of 3rd Avenue has written a fine post about the essential need not only for regulation, but for government to be committed to enforcing the regulation—something we’ve lacked for quite some time.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

March 31, 2008

Just a few days ago, we passed the anniversary of a seminal tragedy. On March 25 1911, a fire tore through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City. 146 people, mostly young girls, died in fifteen minutes time. Many died in the flames and smoke, unable to exit the building due to very narrow stairs with inward opening doors—some of which were habitually locked during work hours by the owners to prevent theft or absenteeism. Others died as the ill-conceived fire escape buckled under the weight of those trying to scramble down to safety. Still others, often already smoldering and with no other prospects for escape, leapt from the ninth story in hopes of a miraculous survival.

The tragedy was not unpredictable. A sweatshop for manufacturing the “shirtwaist” top so fashionable among women at the time, Triangle was packed with flammable material. Fires were not uncommon in the factories of the day. But neither was it inevitable. Many of the basic fire protection innovations upon which we rely today—firewalls, fireproof doors, even automatic sprinklers—had been available since the 1880s. Enclosed fireproof stairs were developed at the turn of the century. Fire drills were recognized as very successful in preventing panic and catastrophe in the event of a fire. But neither the Triangle Shirtwaist company nor the Asch building in which it was located availed themselves of any of these protections, and some of their standard practices made the situation worse (the aforementioned locked doors).

Why was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company so disinterested in investing in fire protection? Industrial Engineer H.F.J. Porter was an expert in fire safety, and had observed the conditions at the sweatshop. He had recommended some basic changes, but reported being brusquely rebuffed.

“Let em burn up. They’re a lot of cattle, anyway.”

While the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the most dramatic urban workplace catastrophe prior to 9/11, it was hardly an isolated incident. Workplace injury and death was rather common in factories of all sorts. With desperate workers plentiful, they simply couldn’t be bothered to concern themselves with such trifles as basic sanitation or safety.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a catalyst in the history of the U.S. It galvanized the labor movement and gave greater force impetus to women’s suffrage and feminism. Workplace conditions in the U.S. are by and large much better today, but not because corporations and owners have become more enlightened and benign, or because the magical market forces have guided industry to become more safety conscious. Plenty of modern manufacturing businesses have proven themselves more than willing to put the well being of their workers in peril when they can do so (consider loathsome sweatshops of Marianas, enthusiastically protected by Tom Delay when he lead the House Republicans). Domestic labor conditions have improved primarily because of the growth of the vigor of unions in their ability to defend the interests of workers, and because of the willingness of government, motivated by their citizens, to establish standards and regulations for the safety of workers.

It is not uncommon to hear conservatives and libertarians denounce legislated safety standards, government regulatory bodies such as OSHA, and organized labor as interfering with the mechanisms of the market. Yet I’ve heard none of these critics give any sort of satisfactory answer as to how the safety and well-being of employees would be better protected under Chicago school-style free markets. Their best defense is typically that the death and suffering of workers under sweatshop labor is an inevitable, if perhaps sad, cost of economic development. As long as someone is becoming wealthy off the blood shed by workers, and therefore some wealth will eventually trickle down to the surviving labor force, the involuntary sacrifice of the dead and maimed is worthwhile.

I refuse to accept that a society and its economic system cannot prosper without human sacrifice to bloodthirsty gods of the market. All children of God have an intrinsic worth, and their well being deserves protection regardless of any given market conditions. To the extent that the market does not value that worth, it should very much continue to be restricted.

Robert Murray: Exhibit “A” in the Case Against Deregulation

August 17, 2007

How do the conservatives defend their position in the face of the Crandall Canyon Mine fiasco?

The modern conventional conservative loves big business. They emphatically agree with Calvin Coolidge: “The chief business of the American people is business.” When business is unfettered by government influence and regulation, it will make the U.S. prosper. Everyone comes out ahead.

Tell that to the families who must now be struggling to maintain hope that their husbands and fathers are still alive somewhere under the mountain. Continue to justify that line in light of Robert Murray and his company’s flagrant abuse.

Accidents happen. Perhaps the mine collapse was an entirely random fluke, one of those twists of fate that can befall any of us at any time.

But Robert Murray’s mines have a history of safety violations and risky methods. In his lust for profit, Murray has flouted regulations (aided until recently by conservative congress where prefers to cut funding for federal regulatory agencies in the name of curbing “big government,” and by a conservative administration less than interested in enforcing those regulations). He has bullied regulators, miners, and law enforcement. And ultimately, he has been willing to conduct his business in ways that gambled for increased profit with human lives. It looks now like he lost that wager, and the lives not his own are paying the price.

How ignoble an economic system in which those who put up the greatest cost for decisions are not those who reap the greatest rewards should those decisions pan out.

Proponents of the free market insist that the market, unimpeded by government interference, is the best method by which to protect the interests of all members of that market. Producers have a vested interest in competing to provide the safe products, safe working conditions, etc, in order to ensure the greatest possible share of the market. Let them compete unencumbered, and they will arrive at the cheapest, most efficient, and safest possible solution.

Indeed? I challenge those proponents: What reason do we have to believe that removing those regulations entirely would have encouraged Murray to have used safer mining tactics and better protected the safety of his workers? Is there any reason to believe that he and other mine operators would not be even less careful with their miners, as were the industrial leaders of the virtually unregulated Gilded Age?

It is not enough to assure us that such crimes would be punished by the public as we “vote with our dollars.” If we are as a society believe in the “sanctity of life,” then we have a right to demand that there be a system in place to prevent such abuses from occurring in the first place, not just punish those who so abuse. We have a right to demand that the interests of the worker contributing to society and the family which the worker supports be held above the corporate hunger for lucre.

Until they can identify some private means by which the despicable actions of corrupt people like Murray can be restrained, I can never embrace the laissez-faire agenda of modern conservatism.

See also:

The Value of the Working Poor

August 1, 2006

Just a few days ago the House of Representatives passed a bill increasing the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over the next three years. The bill is rather controversial, including both the minimum wage increase and big reductions in the estate tax.

While I listened to the radio report on the bill, I was reminded of a discussion I had some time ago with “Jed.” We were discussing politics/economics, and I had mentioned the frustration I felt at the meager compensation so many in our communities receive for their work. Jed scoffed.

“It is what they are willing to accept,” Jed asserted. “If they don’t like it, they can get something different. They can go to school and get the training to increase their earning power.”

I was rather disturbed by Jed’s response. I am an enthusiastic advocate of higher education—not merely because of the potentially improved earning power, but for Jeffersonian reasons; higher education helps individuals learn to think critically, to communicate, and to understand the world around them. But Jed was not extolling the virtues of higher education. The implication was that low-income wage earners deserved nothing more based upon their choices. This attitude simply does not reflect the subtleties of the situation or the principles of a moral, “Christian” society.

It is worth noting that the more recent generations are finding it a greater and greater challenge to pay for college. The combination of the stagnation of wages (adjusted for inflation), skyrocketing cost of college, and reduction in grants in favor of loans have all created a more precarious situation for graduates than in years past. The average student graduates with an unprecedented $19,000 in student loan debt, takes longer than four years to complete their degree, and sees lower adjusted earnings than previous generations. A daunting prospect indeed for many student (See NPR’s On Point: “Can America Afford Going to College?”, Anya Kamenetz’s Generation Debt, and Tamara Draut’s Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Something Can’t Get Ahead). Do we really want our upcoming workforce to be in such a precarious financial circumstances?

Nor is the degree which those students pursue guarantee employment or financial security. Jed was suggesting that by simply getting a degree in a high-compensation field (and assuming they are dutiful workers), they would be virtually assured financial security. This suggestion does not withstand basic scrutiny. Not all college programs can claim to lead to well-paying and highly secure careers. Many students are not inclined by talent or interest to enter those financially profitable programs. Nor are those programs equipped to accept everyone if all the students were so inclined. And a glut of trained candidates for a particular field would not mean high rewards for everyone; the demand would remain relatively fixed, leaving the bulk of candidates to find work in fields for which they may be poorly equipped and in which they are not so well rewarded. In fact, in according to the principles of supply and demand, the influx of applicants into a relatively fixed job market could drive down salaries, hurting even the “winners” in the competition for work.

But this isn’t really about the educational system. Nor is it about promoting the minimum wage. I’m aware of and willing to discuss the possible negative consequences and the demographic realities of the minimum wage—though studies by the Fiscal Policy Institute, Economic Policy Institute, and The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities all indicate that those consequences are far less grave than opponents suggest; and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teenager (presumably dependents upon their families) are a minority within the minimum wage labor force—meaning a majority of minimum-wage earners most likely are working to provide for themselves and possibly families.

No, the real issue is the way we value the working class and working poor in our society.

No matter how advanced our society, economy, and technology becomes, there will always be a need for janitors, garbage collectors, groundskeepers, maids, agricultural workers, factory workers, fast-food workers, etc. And no matter how advanced our educational system, we will always have people who, due to circumstances such as disability, past history, or just plain inclination, are best suited for that sort of work, or unable to obtain anything “better.” Since they will always be here—and we will always need them, we should not devalue those people or the work which they do simply because those jobs may not require glamorous skills.

A bishop once told me that “There is dignity in all work.” I believe there is truth to this. I have found satisfaction in working in a warehouse, doing routine janitorial/cleaning work, or operating a factory machine, just as I have working at the library or doing design work. I have a friend who finds great personal fulfillment in his lawncare job. One of the maintenance staff at the Library has confided in me that she feels gratified to help make that important community resource clean and comfortable for the public.

If we truly believe that bishop’s precept, should it not follow that all work deserves a dignified wage, one on which these good people can live a dignified (if modest) life? In a moral, “Christian,” civilized society, shouldn’t we strive to ensure that all heads of households are able to support their families with some measure of security, regardless of their educational or skill level? Don’t we believe that these providers should be able to have the peace of mind which comes from knowing that they can cope financially with an emergency which might grip their families? Don’t we want them to be able to make enough that they can spend time raising their families and strengthening relationships instead of desperately working multiple jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads? Don’t we want them to have the time to spend in the community, performing church service, and growing as people? Should we not value them as important and valuable human beings, irrespective of their career path?

I find it a sad commentary on our Christian compassion and our belief in the family values about which we talk ad nauseum that we would simply write off the working poor as deserving and justifiable losers in our economy and society.

Who gives more, Labor or Ownership?

April 21, 2006

“Of course capital should get more of the rewards than labor,” posted the guy in a discussion group. “They invest more. They contribute more than the workers.”

Really?

That’s the conventional wisdom. I’m not so sure.

What does capital (ie, ownership and executives) contribute? Money. Nest eggs. For many of the nation’s big investors, excess cash. If you look beyond the dogma of commerce and economists, its actually just 1’s and 0’s in a computer (or, in days gone by, marks on a ledger).

What does labor contribute?

Blood, sweat, and tears.

For the thousands of miners who have developed black-lung disease (pneumoconiosis), or developed cancer as a result of employment in uranium mining of various chemical processing industries, their health.

Of course, the ultimate sacrifice paid by labor is life. A few thousand laborers died in completing the Transcontinental Railroad. In the early years of the last century, it was common for well over a thousand miners to die each year in mining accidents (not to mention those mentioned earlier; those who later died slow, excruciating deaths from illness directly caused by their work), and for hundreds to die in various manufacturing jobs throughout the nation. While today the yearly fatality numbers have dwindled to under 100 in most industries (a reduction brought about as a result of labor protection laws and direct bargaining by labor for increased safety standards), those deaths still represent the fact that the ultimate cost is born by labor. Ownership and executives may suffer financial losses, even have their life savings wiped out and worldly possessions taken from them (though often bankruptcy laws and government bailouts frequently shelter the most privileged from that risk), but what is that compared to health or life?

Who in reality gives more? Who really bears the costs and risks of “progress?”

Labor.

We should honor their contributions. We should ensure their voice in the decision making processes, and equitable compensation when their labors bear fruit. They may not hold stock, but their stake is equal to any that the owners, investors, and executives hold.