Labor in America

I’ve been trying to write something thorough about labor conditions in America. This is something that I’ve become a bit of an expert on through my day job. Here’s a first attempt.

First, anyone my age or older probably has some urban myths (or even true stories) about comic union excesses. And even though these stories were circulated by the patrician caste, they gained traction with many of those who did not get that kind of largesse out of resentment. And as fewer and fewer Americans belong to Unions, there are more people to join this resentment.

But I rarely, if ever, have heard about how this connects to excesses at the higher end. We blamed it on the Japanese in the 80s, and increasingly so on illegal alien labor. The 90s saw a lot of blame be placed on NAFTA. The Democrats tried to place a lot of chips on the decline of manufacturing in America in the 2004 election. None of those xenophobic explanations explain the low wages of endemic jobs, like service jobs, the fastest growing sector in the above-mentioned timeframe.

Conversely, during the post-bubble scandals of Enron, WorldCom, et al., we heard about the plight of a few pensioners and shareholders, and we focussed our anger at the Ken Lays of the world on those basis.

But I never heard “What would you rather have, America? A few extra foremen hanging around a worksite, or multi-millionaire rip off artists?” Every beer-bellied foreman hanging around a worksite doing nothing is another kid or two in college with health care. Can we say the same for Ken Lay’s wreckage?

As union membership has declined, some states have replaced them with agencies and wage laws that apply to all workers. So, instead of a broad number of employers having to pay prevailing wages instead of low wages, a few employers here and there will be hit with gigantic lawsuits for what often amounts to clerical error or a misunderstanding of byzantine regulations.

Likewise, the lack of a internal complaint system that has teeth is probably to blame for plenty of sexual harassment and other dscrimination claims that often lead to large ticket lawsuits as well.

If I had the time and the money, I would love to do a study and see what cost these lawsuits have on American business and what percentage of them could likely be solved by union reps and union grievance procedures, and then take that amount and spread it around and see if it would approach a union wage for the affected businesses. My guess is that it probably wouldn’t get there, but it would take a lot of risk out of doing business for some employers.

Re-unionization is probably not going to be a political reality, however. People change jobs often and increasingly work for smaller and smaller firms. These firms are not well equipped to handle giant projects like collective bargaining and health care the way, say, Ford was in the 50s.

Despite a long cold coservative winter, the momentum for these solutions seems to be increasingly headed for government.