Saturday, January 29, 2005

Labor in America

In this Tapped article, Sam Rosenfeld links to and discusses a Washington Post article about moves afoot at the Department of Homeland Security to phase out vivil service protections. The White House hopes to follow up on this by requesting from Congress authority to rewrite civil service rules at all government agencies. Among the features of the plan is reduced collective bargaining rights for employees. This last aspect is not discussed much in either the original Post article or Rosenfeld's analysis of it, but deserves close scrutiny.

Collective bargaining rights and the status of labor unions in general have suffered greatly over the last several decades and the vast majority of American workers now work in non-union jobs. One of organized labor's last great strongholds is in government jobs and, as this article demonstrates, labor is on the run there, too. If, as I noted, most workers work in non-union environments, why should they care about the health of the labor movement?

Let's look first at what federal labor law guarantees workers. There are federal restrictions on child labor and there is a federal minimum wage, currently $5.15 an hour (last night I took my daughter to dinner; it would have taken four hours work at that rate, before with-holding, to pay for our dinner of a burger and water for me, chili-cheese dog and pepsi for her and a shared order of fries). Overtime pay of at least time and a half is required after forty hours of work in a week, with exceptions for certain types of businesses and certain types of work. The Bush Administration has worked hard to expand those exceptions. That's about it. The Fair Labor and Standards Act does not require severance pay, sick leave, vacation pay, or holidays. FLSA does not cap the number of hours you can work in a day or in a week. If your job has such a cap or if it requires severance pay, chances are they came about as a direct result of a collective bargaining agreement. There is certainly no federal requirement that your job provide you with health insurance benefits or a pension plan. If your job provides sick or vacation leave or paid holidays, or health insurance or a pension plan, these things came about at least indirectly as a result of collective bargaining. Companies in industries not largely unionized, but that compete for workers with unionized industries, have had to offer benefits comparable to those for unionized workers to attract quality employees.

These benefits, which many regard as minimums before they will take a job, exist broadly, though hardly universally, in the work place because through collective bargaining, across a wide range of industries, labor unions were able to establish them as standards. The middle class as we know it, with it's level of affluence and leisure time, exists largely because of the availability to millions of working men and women of these benefits. As they slip away, the grip the middle class holds on its standard of living slips too. And they are slipping away.

For the sake of full disclosure, I have to reveal that I am a Labor Relations Representative, and also that I work for management, in a non-bargaining unit position. Many of the job benefits I have I owe largely to the successful negotiations of the labor unions I find myself dealing with daily. I'm grateful for that. It seems to me that labor unions today though are fighting a rear-guard action to protect those benefits on an ever narrowing front.

Most of my interactions with unions involve employees who are dis-satisfied with the consequences of poor exercises of judgement on their part. At the statewide level, there are no great battles left for the unions I deal with to fight; they are mostly occupied with protecting the benefits they've already won, sometimes even sacrificing those benefits for new hires to preserve them for existing employees. In a previous job I held, one of the unions I dealt with, the National Association of Letter Carriers, established, with the USPS, a revolutionary grievance resolution process to replace the old grievance/arbitration system that was costing the union and the USPS millions of dollars annually. The process, which focuses on resolving grievances through an honest sharing of information and attempts to address underlying problems to prevent recurrences of those problems, was widely embraced by union reps at all levels and to a lesser but still significant degree by managers. Born of a desperate realization by NALC and USPS that they were strangling each other, the process, if properly supported, could provide the basis for broader cooperation and long-term continued success for the Postal Service. Despite its success, however, the process has not been embraced by the other Postal Service unions, to say nothing of expanding throughout or beyond the industry.

Unions are finding it increasingly difficult to establish themselves in the "new economy." I think they are widely viewed by the working public as being irrelevant or, worse, a hindrance to America's economic expansion. The American worker is a strangely optimistic creature. As individuals, they want to believe that they are exceptional, that through perseverance and hard work they can rise to the top. They think that through this they will eventually rise to the top 20, or 10, or 1% of American wage earners. They think that what prevents them from doing this is a stagnant economy unnecessarily and unfairly hampered by labor unions, too much government regulation and frivolous lawsuits. Once all that clutter is cleared away, free enterprise will thrive, producing a rising tide that will float all boats. They have a President and a pundit class that persistently work at polishing and pushing this myth. They want to believe that just by being exceptional individual workers they could gain on their own in a market competing for their services those benefits unions have won through collective bargaining and years of struggle. This is true only in limited highly competetive industries and, even there, usually only for brief periods of time. They want to believe that government regulation of business has been born out of the fevered dreams of vile overreaching bureaucrats intent on killing the American dream, not out of the need to contain the rapacious greed of business men and women who have no concern for the health and well-being of America or its people or, often, even the long-term health of their own companies and will trample on any right and break any law for their own short term gain. The savings and loan scandals of the eighties, Michael Miliken, Ivan Boesky, Enron, et al, belies this belief. They want to believe that trial lawyers are always greedy self-interested leeches drawing their sustenance from the honest work of others, and not that they may be our last guardians, when those running our government have formed common cause with the worst of the robber barons to ignore, undermine, and undo the restraints experience has shown us must be placed on their rapaciousness, at the expense, and with the deliberate intent, of permanently subjugating the working class.

The American worker wants to believe that, all evidence to the contrary, America is the land that exists in our shiniest myths and fairy tales, where virtue is both its own reward and is richly rewarded, too, where evil fails and falls of its own weight. In such a land, people of virtue don't need help to get ahead. They don't need labor unions. We don't live in such a land, though. Organized labor has to go through some major changes to reestablish its relevance; it may have to crash and burn and start all over again. But now, at the dawn of the 21st century, at least as much as ever, there is a broad need for the protections labor unions can offer American workers.
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