Monday, September 01, 2003

It's Labor Day, and many American workers seem pretty angry

This is the first line of an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And, as my kids would say, "Well, duh!" Why are American workers angry? Let me count the ways:

Too Much Work

The Star-Tribune article deals with the Administration's overtime regs that will take away overtime from millions:
Faced with the possible loss of overtime pay, more than 76,000 workers have flooded the U.S. Department of Labor with reactions to proposed changes in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In the small, spartan office the department has set aside for public review of the comments, paper copies of 24,000 comments -- mailed or faxed -- fill 66 large binders stored in cabinets along the wall. A computer database displays more than 52,000 e-mail comments, representing every state.
That's a hell of a lot of comments.

The Washington Post yesterday deals with the same issue. And here's a fact that most Americans don't realize:
In the United States, unlike many other industrialized countries, there are no federal laws limiting the number of hours that employees are compelled to work. But the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a workplace standard of 40 hours a week by requiring employers to pay non-management workers time-and-a-half for every extra hour worked in one week.
The problems is that in times when the economy is slow and unemployment is high, employers tend to take advantage:
Business groups and labor activists agree that many companies, pressured to hold down costs in a globally competitive environment, often ask employees to work longer than the standard American 40-hour workweek. And when the work is voluntary and fairly compensated, they say, that's a good thing -- for the employees who want the extra income and for the economy in general.

But labor experts also worry about the danger for exploitation in a slow economy, as companies continue to slash thousands of jobs every month and many workers feel they can't afford to say no to employers' requests.
The result?
Americans work more than many other people in developed economies, according to a recent report by the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency that monitors workforce conditions. The ILO found that American workers put in an average of 1,825 hours per year, far more than workers in most European nations. French workers, by contrast, are employed an average of 1,545 hours per year, and German workers about 1,444 hours.

"In relative terms, Americans are workaholics among advanced industrialized countries," said the Chamber of Commerce's Workman.

According to Lawrence J. Johnson, chief of the ILO's employment-trends team, "there's been a decision in Europe to work less and less hours, a decision made culturally."

"The European Union and the United States have two different systems and react to economic conditions differently. . . . A lot of what Europeans have -- longer vacations, shorter hours -- are legislated, and in the United States, it is handled through collective bargaining," he said.

Or rather, such working conditions are determined through labor negotiations for the shrinking portion of the workforce represented by unions. Collective bargaining has become a less powerful tool for workers because of the diminished clout and reach of the labor movement, Johnson and others said. Today, only 13 percent of workforce is unionized, down from a third of all workers at labor's zenith in 1955.
Too Few Jobs

UNITE'S President Bruce Raynor talks about the loss of manufacturing jobs in the context of the bankruptcy of Pillowtex
Every manufacturing industry in the United States -- apparel, textiles, metals, paper, electronics -- has lost jobs in the past year. Over the past 36 months manufacturing employment has declined by 2.7 million. This is the longest decline since the Great Depression. The job crisis is not only in manufacturing. Since the economic recovery began, more than a million jobs have disappeared. Apparently the economy is doing well. Only workers are suffering.
The result: More fodder for Wal-Mart and McDonalds:
The workers are now desperate. They received no severance payments. Their health insurance is gone. Mortgages, car payments and taxes aren't being paid. Kannapolis, N.C., where Pillowtex is located, has always been a textile town. There are no other jobs available. And while the union is still trying to find a buyer for the company, the local government's response for economic development is to buy an ad in USA Today or the Wall Street Journal asking Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey or Warren Buffett to consider moving some of their business operations to Kannapolis.
Even the NY Times seems to have noticed:
Even though the recession ended nearly two years ago, polls show that American workers are feeling stressed and shaky this Labor Day because the nation continues to register month after month of job losses and wages are rising more slowly than inflation.

One factor above all has fueled the insecurity: the nation has lost 2.7 million jobs over the last three years. The recovery has been so weak since the recession ended in November 2001 that the nation's payrolls are down one million jobs from when economic growth resumed.

Indeed, the current economic expansion is the worst on record in terms of job growth. The average length of unemployment, more than 19 weeks, spiked this summer to its highest level in two decades.
Too Few Grownups in Charge

Bob Herbert at the NY Times thinks the problem is that there is not enough adult supervision:

There was an interesting lead paragraph in an article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal last Thursday:

"The blackout of 2003 offers a simple but powerful lesson: Markets are a great way to organize economic activity, but they need adult supervision."

Gee. They've finally figured that out. The nuns I had in grammar school were onto this adult supervision notion decades ago. It seems to be just dawning on the power brokers of the 21st century. Maybe soon the voters will catch on. You need adults in charge.
And then in a take-off riff from John Lennon's "Imagine"
Imagine if we had done some things differently. If, for example, instead of squandering such staggering amounts of federal money on tax cuts and an ill-advised war, we had invested wisely in some of the nation's pressing needs. What if we had begun to refurbish our antiquated electrical grid, or developed creative new ways to replenish the stock of affordable housing, or really tackled the job of rebuilding and rejuvenating the public schools?

What if we had called in the best minds from coast to coast to begin a crash program, in good faith and with solid federal backing, to substantially reduce our dependence on foreign oil by changing our laws and habits, and developing safer, cleaner, less-expensive alternatives? This is exactly the kind of effort that the United States, with its can-do spirit and vast commercial, technological and intellectual resources, would be great at.

Imagine if we had begun a program to rebuild our aging infrastructure — the highways, bridges, tunnels and dams, the water and sewage facilities, the airports and transit systems. Imagine on this Labor Day 2003 the number of good jobs that could be generated with that kind of long-term effort.

All of these issues, if approached properly, are job creators, including the effort to reduce our energy dependence. The big hangup in the economic recovery we are supposed to be experiencing now is the continued joblessness and underemployment.

A fellow I ran into recently in San Jose, Calif., Andy Fortuna, said: "I've got a college degree and I'm washing cars. I'm working, but I'd like a good job. If the idea is for business to employ as few people as possible and keep their pay as low as possible — well, how's that good for me? Who speaks for me?"