Posts Tagged ‘labor’

Protest of the day

Posted: 26 May 2016 in Uncategorized
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[ht: bn]*

Meanwhile, unions (led by the CGT, the Confédération générale du travailare leading strike actions across France at oil refineries, nuclear power stations, ports, and transportation hubs to protest the labor reform bill the government pushed through the National Assembly without a vote.

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*Here is a link to the lyrics of the famous Italian partisan song “Bella Ciao.” And another link to the Nuit Debout orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s “Nabucco.”

 

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The amount of time people work is not, of course, written in stone (or, for that matter, in law). And, in the United States, employees work much more than in most other rich countries. So, why not reduce it?

In the nineteenth century, the demand of the U.S. labor movement was 8 hours—8 hours work, 8 hours rest, and 8 hours recreation. The idea, when workers were routinely forced to have the freedom to work for 10, 12, 14 hours at a time, was to establish a maximum length of the workday.

The campaign didn’t work (the 8-hour day was never legislated in the United States) but the rising factory system, in which production could be organized around the clock, did bring with it three shifts of 8 hours each. And that eventually became the standard for factories and then offices—except that American workers routinely work more than 40 hours a week and often aren’t paid for overtime.

It makes sense, of course, to reduce the length of the workday and, as I wrote back in September, Sweden has begun doing exactly that—with a 6-hour day. According to the latest report, the results have been positive: less work, more time for rest and recreation, and, as it turns out, higher productivity.

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The result is not all that surprising. According to the Economist, there’s a negative relationship between hours worked and productivity: countries with fewer hours worked per year tend to have higher productivity. The United States, as we know, is at the other end: more hours worked and lower productivity.

So, the number of hours worked (whether daily, weekly, or annually) is not anything given or natural. And there are certainly benefits—for individual workers and society as a whole—in decreasing the length of the workday.

Who, then, is opposed to changing the length of the workday? The same ones who opposed the nineteenth-century movement to establish an 8-hour day.

Their fear, of course, is that, once we denaturalize the length of the workday, we might also be able to question and move beyond other givens—like the idea that most people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a tiny group of employers, who profit from the labor of others.

Changing that arrangement would allow workers themselves to decide how to achieve a better balance of work, rest, and recreation.

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Special mention

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Protest of the day

Posted: 18 May 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Today, strikes by French railway and port workers [ht: sm] cut train services and forced cancellation of ferry links to Britain—as labor unions sought to force President Francois Hollande’s government into retreat on labor law reforms.

Wednesday’s rail strikes, set to run until Friday morning, reduced high-speed and inter-city services by 40 to 50 percent, also heavily disrupting local and suburban commuter lines, the SNCF state railway company said.

Brittany Ferries announced mass cancellations of connections between Britain and northern France, where port workers joined the industrial action.

Truckers maintained blockades set up on Tuesday in a bid to strangle deliveries in and out of fuel and food distribution depots.

At issue is one of Hollande’s flagship reforms a year from a presidential election, law changes designed to make it easier for employers to hire and fire staff and to opt out of cumbersome national rules in favor of in-house accords on pay.

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If you look very closely, you’ll see an ever-so-slight turnaround in the capital and labor shares in the past year.

The profit share of national income has fallen (from 15.4 percent in the second quarter to 13.7 percent in the last quarter of 2015) while the wage share has risen (from 49.6 percent in 2014 to 50.4 percent in 2015).

So, Neil Irwin is correct:

In the last two or three years, as the economy has firmed up, workers have regained some of that bargaining power they lost in the recession. But they have not, not at this point at least, gained the power they lost over the last three decades.

Indeed, the profit share remains much higher than it was 30 years ago (6.8 percent in the third quarter of 1986) and the wage share much lower (it was 54.6 percent in 1986).

Remember, then, before releasing those balloons, the history of capitalist instability. It tells us that an economic downturn will—once again, with a regularity that continues to escape the notice or understanding of mainstream economists and politicians—reverse those temporary capital losses and labor gains.

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According to a new study by JPMorgan Chase, about 3.1 percent of American adults earned income from the so-called Online Platform Economy (from Uber and TaskRabbit to eBay and Airbnb) between October 2014 and September 2015. (This represents a 47-fold increase over three years, beginning in October 2012.) And the financial significance of the gig economy is growing:

We find that the Online Platform Economy contributed significantly to the bottom line for certain segments of the population, notably labor platform participants in general, and specifically labor platform earners who live in San Francisco, or who are 35 and older or have low-to-moderate incomes. Among these segments, platform earnings represented, on average, more than a fourth of their income over a 12-month span.

Many dream that the “sharing economy” represents an alternative to the grotesque levels of inequality created in the rest of the economy.

As it turns out, it’s just that—a dream. The gig economy is itself contributing to increasing inequality across the U.S. economy.

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Eric Morath notes that “wealthier Americans benefit from the gig economy’s ability to generate more income from their assets.”

Of top income earners who did participate in the gig economy, 82 percent did so by renting an asset like a house or selling products they made or already owned. They did so through capital platform systems such as renting out property through VRBO or selling crafts on sites like Etsy.

Low- and moderate-income individuals were much more reliant on labor platform earnings (from working as an Uber driver or a TaskRabbit mover) than the rest of the population. Labor platform earnings represented more than 25 percent of annual income for participants in the bottom three income quintiles compared to just 20 percent of annual income for labor platform participants in the top income quintile.

And then, not even mentioned in the JP Morgan Chase study, there’s the capital behind all the various online platforms—whether working, renting, or selling. Uber CEO and cofounder Travis Kalanick is now supposedly worth at least $5.3 billion.

Not surprisingly, the gig economy is characterized by the same unequalizing, capital-labor dynamics as the rest of the capitalist economy.

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According to mainstream economists, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Sure there is, I teach my students: just abolish monopolies and oligopolies, and the economy can increase production (technically, the economy can move from inside to the production possibilities frontier without any new resources or technology, just by eliminating imperfect competition).

There’s also another free lunch—and, for that matter, breakfast and supper: a universal basis income.

The idea of “just giving people money” seems to have returned as a real topic of discussion. And it’s about time, as inequality (already obscene) continues to grow, workers (already embattled) have less and less security on the job (whether because of outsourcing, automation, or just plain corporate reorganization and cost-cutting), and the ranks of the working poor (already enormous) have swelled.

Andrew Flowers summarizes the main points in the current debate—although strangely there’s not a single mention of the work of Philippe Van Parijs, who has offered the most comprehensive case for a universal basic income.

The modern debate actually began in 1848—no, not in the Communist Manifesto, but in a book by Fourierist Joseph CharlierSolution du problème social ou constitution humanitaire, basée sur la loi naturelle, et précédée de l’exposé de motifs, in which he proposed a scheme with a basic income paid unconditionally to every member of society, regardless of need or ability to work. (There’s a lot more in the work of the utopian socialists—Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and others—we would do well to take up today.)

But, to my mind, Van Parijs (in a variety of columns, articles, and books, dating back to the early 2000s) has developed the most interesting and incisive elaboration and defense of the idea of a universal basic income and a critique of the alternatives (such as a negative income-tax system and lump-sum payments). Here he is responding to some of the major objections:

Suppose everything I have said thus far is persuasive: that the UBI, if it could be instituted, would be a natural and attractive way of ensuring a fair distribution of real freedom, fighting unemployment without increasing poverty, and promoting the central goals of both the feminist and the green movements. What are the objections?

Perhaps the most common is that a UBI would cost too much. . .

But these calculations are misleading. A wide range of existing benefits can be abolished or reduced once a UBI is in place. And for most people of working age, the basic income and the increased taxes (most likely in the form of an abolition of exemptions and of low tax rates for the lowest income brackets) required to pay for it will largely offset each other. In a country such as the United States, which has developed a reasonably effective revenue collection system, what matters is not the gross cost but its distributive impact–which could easily work out the same for a UBI or an NIT. . .

A second frequent objection is that a UBI would have perverse labor supply effects. (In fact, some American income maintenance experiments in the 1970s showed such effects.) The first response should be: “So what?” Boosting the labor supply is no aim in itself. No one can reasonably want an overworked, hyperactive society. Give people of all classes the opportunity to reduce their working time or even take a complete break from work in order to look after their children or elderly relatives. You will not only save on prisons and hospitals. You will also improve the human capital of the next generation. A modest UBI is a simple and effective instrument in the service of keeping a socially and economically sound balance between the supply of paid labor and the rest of our lives. . .

A third objection is moral rather than simply pragmatic. A UBI, it is often said, gives the undeserving poor something for nothing. According to one version of this objection, a UBI conflicts with the fundamental principle of reciprocity: the idea that people who receive benefits should respond in kind by making contributions. Precisely because it is unconditional, it assigns benefits even to those who make no social contribution–who spend their mornings bickering with their partner, surf off Malibu in the afternoon, and smoke pot all night. . .

True, a UBI is undeserved good news for the idle surfer. But this good news is ethically indistinguishable from the undeserved luck that massively affects the present distribution of wealth, income, and leisure. Our race, gender, and citizenship, how educated and wealthy we are, how gifted in math and how fluent in English, how handsome and even how ambitious, are overwhelmingly a function of who our parents happened to be and of other equally arbitrary contingencies. Not even the most narcissistic self-made man could think that he fixed the parental dice in advance of entering this world. Such gifts of luck are unavoidable and, if they are fairly distributed, unobjectionable. A minimum condition for a fair distribution is that everyone should be guaranteed a modest share of these undeserved gifts.

Such a moral argument will not be sufficient in reshaping the politically possible. But it may well prove crucial. Without needing to deny the importance of work and the role of personal responsibility, it will save us from being over-impressed by a fashionable political rhetoric that justifies bending the least advantaged more firmly under the yoke. It will make us even more confident about the rightness of a universal basic income than about the rightness of universal suffrage. It will make us even more comfortable about everyone being entitled to an income, even the lazy, than about everyone being entitled to a vote, even the incompetent.

As I say, it’s about time we take up the issue of a free lunch—and breakfast and dinner—for everyone, especially for those who are every day forced to have the freedom to be bent “more firmly under the yoke.”