Posts Tagged ‘workers’

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Last fall, just before the presidential election, I posted a report on the perilous condition of the American working-class.

Now, thanks to the Rand Corporation [ht: ja], we have a report on how terrible working conditions are in the United States.

Most Americans between the ages of 25 and 71 spend most of their available time in a given day, week, or year forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers. Thus, as the authors of the study note,

The characteristics of jobs and workplaces—including wages, hours worked, and benefits, as well as the physical demands and risk of injury, the pace of work, the degree of autonomy, prospects for advancement, and the social work environment, to name a few—are important determinants of American workers’ well-being. Some of these job characteristics also affect workers’ social and family lives.

Here are some of the major findings, which paint a picture of a work environment that is often stressful, taxing—both physically and mentally—and demeaning:

  • Nearly three-fourths of Americans report either intense or repetitive physical exertion on the job at least one-quarter of the time.
  • More than one-half of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions.
  • Nearly one in five workers—a share the study calls “disturbingly high”—say they face a hostile or threatening environment at work, which can include sexual harassment and bullying.
  • Most Americans (two-thirds) frequently work at high speeds or under tight deadlines, and one in four perceives that they have too little time to do their job.
  • Only 57 percent of workers can take breaks when they want to, and just 31 percent can choose with whom they work.
  • Nearly two-thirds of workers experience at least some degree of mismatch between their desired and actual working conditions, and this fraction rises to nearly three-quarters when taking job benefits into account.

And those conditions spill over into the rest of workers’ lives:

  • About one-half of American workers do some work in their free time to meet work demands.
  • While many Americans regularly adjust their personal schedules to accommodate work matters, many (31 percent) are unable to adjust their work schedules to accommodate personal matters.

Overall, as the authors of the study conclude,

for many Americans, work can be taxing across a range of core dimensions, including at the physical, social, mental, and time levels.

What then?

As that prescient Manchester industrialist wrote to American readers 131 years ago,

The development of production on the basis of the capitalistic system has of itself sufficed. . .to do away with all those minor grievances which aggravated the workman’s fate during its earlier stages. And thus it renders more and more evident the great central fact, that the cause of the miserable condition of the working class is to be sought, not in these minor grievances, but in the Capitalistic System itself.

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Over the years, I’ve reproduced and created many different charts representing the spectacular rise of inequality in the United States during the past four decades.

Here’s the latest—based on the work of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman—which, according to David Leonhardt, “captures the rise in inequality better than any other chart or simple summary that I’ve seen.”

I agree.

The chart shows the different rates of change in income between 1980 and 2014 for every point on the distribution. The brown line illustrates the change in the distribution of income in the 34 years before 1980, when those at the bottom saw larger growth than those at the top. In contrast, in the decades leading up to 2014, only those at the very top saw high levels of income growth. Everyone else experienced very little gain.

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Lest we forget, however, the U.S. economy was already broken by 1980: the bottom 90 percent only took home about 65 percent of national income, while the top 1 percent managed to capture 10.6 percent of total income in the United States. There was nothing fair about that situation.

A bit like a car that looks good, when shiny and new, but is designed with cheap parts to fail as soon as the warranty expires.

Well, the warranty on the U.S. economy expired in the late 1970s. And then it really began to break down.

By 2014, that already-unequal distribution of income had become truly obscene: the share of income going to the bottom 90 percent had fallen to less than 53 percent, while the share captured by the top 1 percent had soared to over 19 percent.

Leonhardt is right: “there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s growth — the fact that our economic bounty flows overwhelmingly to a small share of the population.”

Yes, as Leonhardt argues, different policies would produce a somewhat more equal outcome. And, it’s true, “President Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress are trying to go in the other direction.”

But a different economy—a radically different way of organizing economic and social life—would eliminate the conditions that led to unequalizing growth in the first place. Both before 1980 and in the decades since then.

The fact is, the supposed Golden Age of American capitalism was based on a set of institutions that allowed the boards of directors of large corporations to appropriate a growing surplus and to distribute it as they wished. At first, during the immediate postwar period, that meant growing incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent. But, even then, the mechanisms for distributing income remained in the hands of a very small group at the top. And they had both the interest and the means to stop the growth of wages, get even more surplus (from U.S. workers and, increasingly, workers around the globe), and distribute a greater share of that surplus to a tiny group at the very top of the distribution of income.

Those are the mechanisms that need to be challenged and changed. Otherwise, inequality will remain out of control.

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Chico Harlan [ht: ja] describes the arrival of the first robots at Tenere Inc. in Dresser, Wisconsin:

The workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign. Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labeled “fragile.”

“We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said.

They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into a building where a row of old mechanical presses shook the concrete floor. The forklift honked and carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and earplugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at the end of an assembly line.

The line was intended for 12 workers, but two were no-shows. One had just been jailed for drug possession and violating probation. Three other spots were empty because the company hadn’t found anybody to do the work. That left six people on the line jumping from spot to spot, snapping parts into place and building metal containers by hand, too busy to look up as the forklift now came to a stop beside them.

Tenere is just one of many factories and offices in which employers, in the United States and around the world, are installing robots and other forms of automation in order to boost their profits.

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They’re not doing it because there’s any kind of labor shortage. If there were, wages would be rising—and they’re not. Real weekly earnings for full-time workers (the blue line in the chart) increased only 2.3 percent on an annual basis in the most recent quarter. Sure, they complain about a shortage of skilled workers but employers clearly aren’t being compelled to raise wages to attract new workers. As a result, the wage share in the United States (the red line) continues to decline on a long-term basis, falling from 51.5 percent in 1970 to 43 percent last year (only slightly higher than it was, at 42.2 percent, in 2013).

No, they’re using robots in order to compete with other businesses in their industry, by boosting the productivity of their own workers to undercut their competition and capture additional surplus-value.

And they can do so because robots have become much more affordable:

No longer did machines require six-figure investments; they could be purchased for $30,000, or even leased at an hourly rate. As a result, a new generation of robots was winding up on the floors of small- and medium-size companies that had previously depended only on the workers who lived just beyond their doors. Companies now could pick between two versions of the American worker — humans and robots. And at Tenere Inc., where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week the robots arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.

So, where does that leave us?

The prevalent response has been to worry about mass unemployment. However, as I explained a month ago, I don’t think that’s the issue, at least at the macro level.

If workers are displaced from their jobs in one plant or sector, they can’t just remain unemployed. They have to find jobs elsewhere, often at lower wages than their earned before. That’s how capitalism works.

Much the same holds for workers who don’t lose their jobs but who, as new technologies are adopted by their employers, are deskilled and otherwise become appendages of the new machines. They can’t just quit. They remain on the job, even as their working conditions deteriorate and the value of their ability to work falls—and their employers’ profits rise.

No, the real problem is how the gains from the introduction of robots and other new technologies are being unevenly distributed.

And that’s an old problem, which was confronted by forces as diverse as the Luddites and the John L. Lewis-led United Mineworkers of America, none of which was opposed to the use of new, labor-saving technologies.

In fact, Lewis’s argument was that machinery should replace hand work in the mines, which would serve to both ease the burden of miners’ work increase their wages—all under the watchful eye of their union. And mine-owners who attempted to pay workers less, without technological improvements, should be driven out of business.

Mr. Lewis called upon the miners to accept machinery, since they could not turn back the clock, but to demand a fair share of the benefits of mechanization in the form of shorter hours and increased compensation. He said that machines must be made the workingman’s ally, and that nothing was to be gained by fighting them.

The fact is, right now workers are not getting “a fair share of the benefits of mechanization,” whether in the form of shorter hours or increased compensation.

And if employers are not willing to provide those benefits, workers themselves should be given a say in what kinds of robots and other new technologies will be introduced, what their working hours will be, and how much they will be compensated.

Only then will workers be able to confidently say, “we’ve got the robots.”

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