Posts Tagged ‘precariat’

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Special mention

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Back in June, Neil Irwin wrote that he couldn’t find enough synonyms for “good”  to adequately describe the jobs numbers.

I have the opposite problem. I’ve tried every word I could come up with—including “lopsided,” “highly skewed,” and “grotesquely unequal“—to describe how “bad” this recovery has been, especially for workers.

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Maybe readers can come up with better adjectives to illustrate the sorry plight of Americans workers since the Second Great Depression began—something that captures, for example, the precipitous decline in the labor share during the past decade (from 103.3 in the first quarter of 2008 to 97.1 in the first quarter of 2018, with 2009 equal to 100).*

But perhaps there’s a different approach. Just run the numbers and report the results. That’s what the Directorate for Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs seem to have done in compiling the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2018. Here’s their summary:

For the first time since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, there are more people with a job in the OECD area than before the crisis. Unemployment rates are below, or close to, pre-crisis levels in almost all countries. . .

Yet, wage growth is still missing in action. . .

Even more worrisome, this unprecedented wage stagnation is not evenly distributed across workers. Real labour incomes of the top 1% of income earners have increased much faster than those of median full-time workers in recent years, reinforcing a long-standing trend. This, in turn, is contributing to a growing dissatisfaction by many about the nature, if not the strength, of the recovery: while jobs are finally back, only some fortunate few at the top are also enjoying improvements in earnings and job quality.

Exactly! The number of jobs has gone up and unemployment rates have fallen—and workers are still being left behind. That’s because wage growth “is still missing in action.”

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Workers’ wages have been stagnant for the past decade across the 36 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. But the problem has been particularly acute in the United States, where the “low-income rate” is high (only surpassed by two countries, Greece and Spain) and “income inequality” even worse (following only Israel).

The causes are clear: workers suffer when many of the new jobs they’re forced to have the freedom to take are on the low end of the wage scale, unemployed and at-risk workers are getting very little support from the government, and employed workers are impeded by a weak collective-bargaining system.

That’s exactly what we’ve seen in the United State ever since the crisis broke out—which has continued during the entire recovery.

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But we also have to look at the opposite pole: the growth of corporate profits is both a condition and consequence of the stagnation of workers’ wages. Employers have been able to use those profits not to increase worker pay (except for CEOs and other corporate executives whose pay is actually a distribution of those profits), but to purchase new technologies and take advantage of national and global patterns of production and trade to keep both unemployed and employed workers in a precarious position.

That precarity, even as employment has expanded, serves to keep wages low—and profits growing.

What we’re seeing then, especially in the United States, is a self-reinforcing cycle of high profits, low wages, and even higher profits.

That’s why the labor share of business income has been falling throughout the so-called recovery. And why, in the end, Eric Levitz was forced to find the right words:

American Workers Are Getting Ripped Off

 

*And, of course, even longer: from 114 in 1960 or 112 in 1970 or even 110.2 in 2001.

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Last week, Thomas Frank welcomed Paul Krugman to the ranks of those who believe that the American working-class in recent decades has often voted against its fundamental economic interests by supporting conservative Republicans.

Appropriately enough, Frank then chastises Krugman for having repeatedly used his New York Times column to argue exactly the opposite, denying the idea that working-class Americans had defected to the Republican Party.

Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? then draws the appropriate conclusion: that the tendency on the part of Krugman and other liberals to underestimate working-class conservatism, in both southern and northern states, prepared the way for Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election of November 2016.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the entire American working-class. Working-class whites have been more likely to vote against their economic interests and to be persuaded by the kinds of cultural, identity issues raised by Trump and other Republican politicians. Not so with Hispanics, latinos, and other members of the American working-class—although, according to Stephen Morgan and Jiwon Lee, minorities did have lower turnout in competitive states in 2016.

But I think Frank and Krugman have it only half right. Their view is that the working-class, if it voted according to its economic interests, would stop supporting Republicans and return to the Democratic Party fold.

The problem is, as is clear from the chart at the top of the post, the American working-class has lost out under a long series of both Republican and Democratic administrations. Neither party—conservative or liberal—has reflected the interests of working-class Americans in recent decades.

For example, between 1970 and 2014, the share of wages in national income plummeted from 51.5 percent to 42.3 percent.* As a result, the share of income going to the bottom 50 percent of Americans has literally collapsed, falling from 17.8 percent in 1970 to only 12.5 percent in 2014.

Meanwhile, the top 1 percent has enjoyed enormous success: its share of pre-tax income has soared in the past four and a half decades, rising from 12.5 percent to over 20 percent.

The problem for the American working-class is that neither party represents its interests—and no new party has emerged, at least on a national level, to take their place. So, working-class voters are left to float, under increasingly precarious economic conditions, in support of politicians from both parties who have pandered to a variety of identities and issues but have done nothing to effectively reverse the insults and injuries inflicted upon the American working-class in recent decades.

That’s what’s the matter with the United States.

 

*And, remember (as I explained in 2015), the wage share includes the salaries of CEOs and others at the top of the scale, which should rightly be excluded as distributions of the surplus. If they were subtracted, the share going to working-class Americans would have fallen even further.

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Academic freedom is under assault within the new corporate university.

No, the problem is not the much-publicized kerfuffle surrounding recent talks by Charles Murray and other right-wing speakers on U.S. college campuses. That’s what students do: they try to be provocative. Small conservative student groups, emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory and with financing from off-campus groups, invite incendiary speakers to their campuses—and then other students protest those visits. It’s much ado about nothing, except of course when official academic units and administrators lend their names to the invitations and events.

The most disturbing challenge to academic freedom right now is something else: the unilateral decisions by academic administrators to curtail the speech of faculty members.

Just yesterday morning, the Washington Post reported that two professors were fired for expressing controversial views. One, at the University of Delaware, was an adjunct professor who suggested that Otto Warmbier, the American student whose death last week after being imprisoned in North Korea drew worldwide attention, was a “clueless white male” who “got exactly what he deserved.” Another adjunct professor, at Essex County College in Newark, was first suspended and then fired for defending a Black Lives Matter chapter’s decision to host a Memorial Day event exclusively for black people.

In both instances, adjunct professors—who, with other other members of the academic precariat, now make up close to two-thirds of the faculty employed in U.S. colleges and universities—were fired for making public comments academic administrators deemed unsuitable.

And then there’s the case of a tenured professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s [ht: mfa] History Department who found out that his dean made his chair cancel a class he had been scheduled to teach.

It so happens that [Jay] Smith’s class dealt with a topic that unsettled powerful forces on campus: the place of “big-time athletics” in higher education. This issue is a sore spot for UNC-Chapel Hill, which is still recovering from a major “athletics-academics” scandal first revealed several years ago—about which, it so happens, Smith had been particularly outspoken.

In the new academy, faculty governance has been replaced by top-down decision-making and academic administrators treat everything—from employment contracts to course offerings—just like the executives of any other corporation. If they add to the bottom-line, faculty members are rewarded; if they don’t, contracts are terminated and courses are cancelled.

That’s how the new corporate university operates in the United States. It’s not student protests but academic administrators that are creating a chilling effect, by circumscribing faculty speech and ultimately undermining academic freedom.

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That’s what Mirella Casares gets as her “benefit” package from working at Victoria’s Secret. The package doesn’t include health or retirement contributions.

As it turns out, Casares is not alone. Far from it.

Many American workers, because of the precarious nature of their jobs and household finances, are concerned (as reflected in the word chart above) with “money,” “bills,” “health,” and “retirement income.”

According to the Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2016 by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (pdf), about 30 percent—or approximately 73 million adults—are either finding it difficult to get by or are just getting by financially. Even more, almost half (44 percent) of adults say they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

One of the major reasons is American workers simply aren’t being paid enough. That’s why more than half (53 percent) are forced to spend more than they earn and therefore don’t have the ability to save. They also face extraordinary health (approximately 24 million people, representing 10 percent of adults, are carrying debt from medical expenses that they had to pay out of pocket in the previous year) and education expenses (over half of adults under age 30 who attended college took on at least some debt while pursuing their education). Therefore, they have to borrow money and rely on family and friends to make ends meet.

The other reason is because of income volatility. About one third of American adults indicate that their monthly income varies either occasionally or quite a bit from month to month. Thirteen percent of adults (40 percent of those with volatile incomes) report that they struggled to pay their bills at least once as a result of income volatility. One of the major causes of that volatility is variable work schedules: seventeen percent of workers have a schedule that varies based on their employer’s needs, and just over half of those with a varying work schedule are usually assigned their schedule three days in advance or less.

One of the consequences of being underpaid and subjected to variable work schedules dictated their employers is American workers have found it necessary to turn to multiple jobs and informal work. According to the survey, 9 percent of all adults, and 15 percent of those who are employed, report that they worked at multiple jobs. In addition, 28 percent of all adults report that they or their family earned money through one or more of informal and occasional activities (such as babysitting, selling at flea markets, and performing tasks through online marketplaces) in the prior month.

The United States is now eight years into the recovery from the Great Recession and the benefit to American workers consists of little more than 3 bras and a bottle of perfume.

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Special mention

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As we know, the share of part-time faculty in U.S. higher education has increased dramatically over the past four decades.

According to the latest report from the American Association of University Professors (pdf),

Part-time faculty today comprise approximately 40 percent of the academic labor force, a slightly larger share than tenured and tenure-track faculty combined.

While the category of part-time faculty includes professors temporarily teaching on a percentage basis—professors on phased retirement who teach one or two courses at a reduced rate, new assistant professors who are teaching part-time while finishing a dissertation, and others—the vast majority (91 percent) teach on a per-section basis.

The AAUP estimates that, in 2016–17, part-time faculty members teaching on a per-section basis earned a total of $7,066, on average, from a single institution. Moreover,

Most institutions avoid providing benefits to part-time faculty by prohibiting them from teaching more than two or three courses in a semester. The average pay from a single institution for part-time faculty teaching on a per-section basis is well below the federal poverty line of $16,240 for a family of two. Even if we assume that a part-time faculty member teaches three courses at one institution and three at another, the earnings from those courses would still likely place him or her near the poverty line.

Part-time faculty are the working poor who today walk the supposedly hallowed halls of the academy.