Posts Tagged ‘working conditions’

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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 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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International trade is back on the political agenda. Clearly, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders owe at least some of the support they’ve received in recent primaries to their criticisms of U.S. trade deals and their effects on American workers. It’s also clear that Bernie Sanders, in particular, is being widely criticized—by Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media—for his long-standing opposition to those deals.

The debate about international trade is, of course, not a new one. It’s been a contentious topic throughout the history of capitalism—from the Corn Laws to the Trans-Pacific Partnership—among economists and in politics.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that capitalism and free international trade are not identical. There is no necessary correspondence between them. Historically, there are plenty of examples—in the United States and around the world—when capitalists have demanded and received protectionist barriers against the competitive pressures of capitalists in other countries.

However, right now, in this particular conjuncture in the United States, especially when wages for American workers are being held down, capitalism and free international trade do go hand in hand. U.S. capitalists have demanded and received a lowering of protectionist barriers around the world—through the alphabet soup of agreements, including the WTO, NAFTA, and the TPP—in order to sell more commodities, purchase cheaper inputs for the production of those commodities, and to protect their intellectual property rights.

The existence of low wages for American workers is both a condition and consequence of these trade agreements. It’s a condition to the extent that, with stagnant wages and slowly growing consumption, U.S. businesses often look abroad to sell the commodities they produce. And it’s a consequence in the sense that cheap imports and corporate decisions to relocate production abroad negatively affect the wages and working conditions of American workers.

So, there’s a real problem with international trade, which workers in Michigan and elsewhere have every right to be concerned about.

But the problem is not just with trade. It’s capitalism, too. Or, to put it differently, it’s capitalist trade that’s the problem.

That’s because capitalism means that capitalists get to appropriate the surplus and do with it what they want. They get to decide when and where commodities will be produced, and therefore when and where jobs will or will not be created. If that means offshoring production or purchasing inputs from producers in other countries in order to boost profits, they’ll do so. And workers in the United States will either lose their jobs or be forced to accept lower wages and fewer benefits in order to “compete” with the production of commodities elsewhere.

It’s true that workers in other countries may, at the same time, see more jobs and higher wages. Focusing only on trade (as Trump is doing) pits workers in one country against workers in other countries. That’s the right-wing economic nationalism we’ve been hearing during the Republican primaries.

Focusing on capitalist trade, on the other hand, highlights the individual, private ability of capitalists to utilize the surplus as they see fit, which can often decimate groups of workers, their families, and the communities in which they live—because, in the context of international trade, capitalists are able to source both production and purchasing whenever and wherever it is most profitable. They’re making rational, private decisions that often have irrational, social effects.

That’s why, in the current climate, it’s both capitalism and international trade we need to be concerned about.

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Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day. Adjunct professors on campuses across the country hope to draw attention to their poverty-level wages, with no chance of advancing to a tenure-track position.

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According to an extensive crowd-sourced survey of adjunct working conditions conducted in 2012 by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce,

Adjuncts don’t make much money, they receive little support in terms of professional development from the institutions where they teach, and most would accept a full-time tenure-track position if it were offered to them.

As Karen Hildebrand, an adjunct professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, explains,

This National Adjunct Walkout Day aims to help adjuncts achieve parity with full-time faculty – better pay, job security, equality in professional development opportunities, etc.

But there are two things about this day that are pretty basic to how we treat each other and how we view the world.

First, hiring people as adjuncts sets a very bad example to college students. That’s not the way to treat people.

Instead of signaling “Get used to it – this is the world you will inhabit, we will use you, wring everything we can out of you and throw you out,” educators should be signaling, “Young College Graduate – we will help you make the world a better place.”

Second, this thing of paying substandard salaries to teachers is a victimization of people who love what they do.

Ask any musician or actor how many times she or he has been asked to donate a free performance. After all, to the people hiring them, it’s not real work – it’s fun! It seems people who love what they do are punished for it.

Parents tell their children, “Get a degree in something you love – but make sure you can make a living from it.”

Following that logic, teaching is one of the things that you shouldn’t get a degree in.

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Walmart workers and supporters launched protests in at least 15 cities yesterday, urging the world’s largest retailer to provide higher wages, better jobs and the right to unionize.

OUR Wal-Mart, a coalition including Wal-Mart workers, community organizers and the United Food & Commercial Workers organized day-long protests, urging Wal-Mart to pay full-time wages of $25,000 a year, or $12 an hour. It says many of Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million associates are part-time employees averaging just $8.80 an hour.

The Wal-Mart protests – which follow last week’s broader, widespread strikes among fast-food industry workers seeking $15 an hour wages from fast food chains – were scheduled for Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Boston, Orlando, Minneapolis and Washington D.C., where Wal-Mart is threatening to cut expansion if it’s required to pay a city mandated “living wage” of at least $12.50 an hour.

Each year, hundreds of children are hurt or killed while working on American farms. The dangers run from hazardous chemicals to farm machinery (like the grain auger that severed the legs of 2 teenagers in Oklahoma). Yet, the White House has been sitting on new child labor rules that some safety advocates say would prevent such accidents.

“We’ve been trying to figure out who’s opposed to these rules,” said Celeste Monforton, a former Department of Labor safety official and blogger writing about workplace safety issues. “Is it part of this administration’s concerns about regulations and how they’re perceived? I have not been able to discern that.”

According to Celeste Monforton,

While 17 year old Tyler Zander and Bryce Gannon recover in the hospital, proposed improvements to Subpart E-1—-including provisions related to young people working in commercial grain elevators—-have been stalled “in review” at the White House for nine months. Secretary Solis’ latest regulatory plan says she doesn’t expect to issue the proposed rule until December. It’s troubling to me that in op-eds and speeches President Obama uses child labor protections as an example of common sense regulations, yet it’s his White House that is holding up changes to modernize them. Worse yet, these improvements are just at the preliminary stage of the rulemaking process. The document being held-up at OIRA is a PROPOSED rule—a document about which the Labor Department will seek public comment. A final rule is still a long way down the road. For an Administration that says it believes in child labor protections, and boasts about its commitment to public participation, openness and transparency (see yet another announcement this week) its failure to publish this proposed rule is especially inexcusable.

According to a 2002 report by the Department of Health and Human Services [pdf], 40 percent of work-related fatalities of young people (under the age of 18) stem from employment in Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing (another 22 percent occur in Retail Trade).

According to Monforton, the safety rules governing young workers employed in agricultural jobs have not been updated for 40 years.

It’s about time the U..S. government puts an end to the injuries and fatalities young people suffer in the fields of U.S. farms.