Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Decline of the American Workplace

This time of year, there is the annual controversy over Black Friday.  Do we need an event where shopping is taken to such a ludicrous extreme with people standing in line sometimes for days and battling over the limited number of doorbuster bargains?  A previous posting some time ago, Tragedy on Black Friday was about how people have actually been killed by stampedes through the front door.

But more recently, the controversy has been over the one-upmanship of stores opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday until inevitably, the sales have now started on Thanksgiving evening, ruining another holiday for people now forced to work that evening.  To make things worse, my nearby McDonald’s announced on their sign “OPEN THANKSGIVING & CHRISTMAS”. And more restaurant chains are following suit.

While it is good that restaurants and stores are catering to consumers, does anybody care about those who are now forced to give up their holidays?  To be sure, there are a number of places that simply cannot close for the holidays such as hospitals and police departments.  But anybody who works in such a place clearly knows ahead of time that holiday work is part of the deal.  And here, we are talking about professionals like nurses, doctors, and policemen who likely make a decent wage.  But is it fair to make those at the bottom rung at or near minimum wage also have to work holidays – especially at no additional holiday pay?  For these workers, this is the latest adding of insult to injury.

Of course, not everybody cares about working on Christmas or any other holiday.  If someone wants the extra cash from working holidays, there is nothing wrong with that.  And indeed, many places open on holidays say that they ask for volunteers before making their work schedules.  For example, when my younger son worked as a food server in a nursing home, he was offered double time to work holidays – an offer he gladly accepted!  But especially where there isn’t any extra pay for working holidays, it’s hard to believe that there are enough volunteers to run the business that day.

The disappearance of holiday days off is just part of a disturbing trend faced by many American workers.  Indeed, the US is the only advanced country without a national vacation or holiday policy.  So while most of those in say, professional and manufacturing jobs get some paid vacation and holidays, those in retailing, restaurant, and hospitality for example, are at the mercy of their employers.  At one time, this wasn’t such a big deal since many of those who worked in the latter categories did so as temporary or second income jobs.  But with the elimination of many professional and manufacturing jobs in favor of retailing and restaurant jobs, more and more Americans are forced to try and make do with these jobs to earn a basic living.

In addition:

- Those companies that do offer health insurance, usually only offer it to full-time employees.  Employees not offered full-time hours must pay for or go without health coverage unless they have a spouse who is covered.  Others who do have health benefits are sometimes forced to stay in jobs they may find to be miserable to make sure they keep that coverage.

- Some people working part-time jobs want or need a second part-time job to try and make ends meet.  But all too often, employers force their part-time employees to accept work schedules that are constantly changing which makes accommodating a second job either impractical or impossible.

But while the white-collar workers have it better than those at the bottom of the economic ladder, they are not without their woes.  Companies seeking to maximize profits are constantly downsizing and those who are left working often have to do the work that was previously done by two or more workers.  This often leads to workers forgoing part of their vacation time since they know that without someone to back them up while gone, the backlog of work they left will be there to greet them upon their return. And more workers are now being given laptop computers and/or smart phones to be able to respond to E-mails or other work requirements during their time away from the office.

But what is most disheartening is that this is just the tip of the iceberg if one is to believe the accounts in The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker by Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times.  The Amazon link here includes an online preview of the book that is interesting, if not disturbing reading about the hell that a number of workers have gone through.  And check out this link for an interesting list of Greenhouse’s most recent articles which include coverage of recent labor protests against (believe it or not!) Walmart and the fast food industry.

It is obvious that the recent financial collapse and its resultant high unemployment has made things much worse for the American workforce.  In a normal thriving economy, if a worker was mistreated or underpaid, he or she could look for and find a better opportunity elsewhere.  But with jobs so scarce, employers know they have most if not all of the leverage over their employees – and they are not shy about taking advantage of it!

But even before this recent financial collapse, wages and working conditions in America have been stagnating or even declining in the last several decades even with greatly increasing productivity and corporate profits.  Many who support unions feel that this trend started with The Strike That Busted Unions when President Reagan fired nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers and continues to this day with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker stripping public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights.

The article concludes with this interesting observation: 
With Mr. Walker’s militant anti-union views now ascendant within the party of a onetime union leader [Reagan], with workers less able to defend their interests in the workplace than at any time since the Depression, the long-term consequences continue to unfold in ways Reagan himself could not have predicted — producing outcomes for which he never advocated.
It doesn't have to be this way.  Companies like Costco have bucked the trend in spite of investor complaints that the company could make more profits by paying its employees less. 
Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, [CEO Jim Sinegal] said. And Costco's customers, who are more affluent than other warehouse store shoppers, stay loyal because they like that low prices do not come at the workers' expense. "This is not altruistic," he said. "This is good business."
It would be nice if more companies would adopt this attitude.  But there is no sign of this happening, especially in a depressed job market.  It is nice to think that employer-employee relations can work perfectly fine in a totally unregulated environment without any governmental intervention.  But the fact is that every other industrialized country has felt the need to adopt basic labor standards for their workers while America lags far behind to the detriment of many of its workers.

Our government has done many things in the past to help the American worker from the 40 hour work week to the minimum wage and yes, the right to collectively bargain.  But in the pro-corporate, anti-worker political environment we have in many parts of the US, these gains have been severely weakened over the years and need to be addressed.  It’s nice to have low prices and robust corporate profits.  But we also need to think of the welfare of our workers to make sure our economy works for everybody and not just those at the top!

1 comment: said...

Another nice thing about Costco, Tony, the owner graduated from Central Catholic and comes back to Pittsburgh frequently. I've complimented one of their workers on her cheerful disposition, and she said, "that's because we're happy inm our jobs. We are treated well". Wish it were always so.